How I learned to stop worrying and love the LEAP

by | Aug 4, 2022 | LEAP, Professional development

Hannah CobbProfessor Hannah Cobb shares her journey to AdvanceHE Fellowship, and how this (eventually) took her from struggling to find the time to apply to providing a springboard for National Teaching Fellowship nomination (more on this below Hannah’s story…).


I need to begin this blog with a confession: although I am the University’s Academic Lead for Academic Development, although I am a Teaching and Scholarship Professor of Archaeology and Pedagogy, although I have been entwined with the work of the Higher Education Academy (and its more recent iteration AdvanceHE) throughout my entire academic career, and although that career began in 2004, I did not become an HEA Fellow until 2020.

As you may know, there are four categories of HEA Fellowship:

  • Associate Fellow (AFHEA)
  • Fellow (FHEA)
  • Senior Fellow (SFHEA)
  • Principal Fellow (PFHEA)

These fellowships provide recognition and accreditation of “the wide range of professional practice carried out by individuals who teach and/or support learning in higher education; from those who have a partial role in teaching/supporting learning through to senior professionals with strategic impact on teaching and learning in an organisational, national and/or international setting” (AdvanceHE 2022). Fellowship of the HEA is an important signifier of an individual’s professionalism and skill as a Higher Education Practitioner. Being a Fellow of the HEA not only acts as an important indicator of one’s competence and commitment to teaching and learning, but it also offers access to resources and training to help build and develop that competence and commitment further.  Crucially, Fellowship is taken seriously across the sector both nationally and, increasingly, internationally.

So how on earth then, did I make it 16 years into my teaching focussed academic career without it? And why did it matter?

To tell you the truth, I’m not sure how Fellowship passed me by for so long. At the start of my career I actually worked for the HEA, researching teaching and learning in archaeology, as well as running a range of development events (GTA workshops, and workshops on themes such as assessment and accessibility). In 2009 I guest edited a volume of an HEA journal Research into Archaeological Education. In 2008 and 2010 respectively I was PI on two projects funded by HEA Teaching Development Grants. All of this work went on to be foundational to the development of my own teaching practice and to impact the wider archaeological sector too, and I have gone on to undertake both teaching and learning leadership roles here at Manchester and to publish widely on a range of aspects of teaching and learning in archaeology. Yet despite all of this, I never managed to find time to apply for my own Fellowship of the HEA.

At first it wasn’t a problem that I wasn’t a Fellow. The scheme was only introduced in the later 2000s, and to begin with not many people were Fellows. But the scheme grew and grew, and by the mid-2010s I began to realise I was really missing out on what it offered in a number of ways. I was missing out on being part of networks and conversations about teaching and learning in HE. I was missing out on training and professional development opportunities. And crucially, although my career trajectory was developing as an expert in archaeological pedagogy, I was missing out on the recognition of my professionalism, knowledge and expertise by colleagues across the wider HE sector.

In 2016 I finally took some steps to change this. I attended the HEA’s annual conference which, that year, was in Brighton. It was an amazing conference and I soaked everything up like a sponge! It was my first introduction to LEGO serious play, to the amazing work colleagues across the UK were doing on EDI in HE, and it was the first time that I attended a workshop about Fellowship. This was a turning point for me, and it was immediately clear that I needed to become a Fellow of the HEA to take my academic development to the next level.

A period of maternity leave meant that I didn’t pick up my Fellowship journey again until 2018 when I attended a national Senior Fellow writing retreat as well as one of the University’s then new Leadership in Education Awards Programme (LEAP) sessions about Fellowship. These workshops challenged me because they made it clear that Fellowship wasn’t simply a case of saying “hey, I do great T&L” and being patted on the head, which I had naively thought it was. It was about showing how what I did made a difference to T&L in a variety of different ways, as outlined in the UK Professional Standards Framework (UKPSF). Thinking this through and compiling the evidence as a part time, teaching focussed, parent of three children (who were all under the age of 10) was challenging. Carving out the time to think and work on my Fellowship application inevitably often fell to the bottom of my “to do” list and it took me a further two years to really bring everything together. However, in this time the University developed the option of submitting LEAP portfolios as a recorded presentation. This worked so well for me – so well in fact that I was able to produce my presentation during the first lock down, in between leading on the move to online learning in my School and home schooling all my kids! So, in summer 2020, I finally became a Senior Fellow of the HEA.

You might think achieving SFHEA would be the end point of this blog, but for me it was more of a beginning! In fact, I can’t emphasise enough how important this was for my own career development. Having to articulate my work on teaching and learning for an audience beyond my own subject area helped me to clarify my narrative about my pedagogy and practice in a way that I had never done before. Committing this to paper in the mapping exercise, and summarising my expertise made me realise how far my career, and my expertise had come. It gave me a much-needed boost of confidence, but it also gave me something very tangible too, because after I had achieved SFHEA I sat down with my mapping document and compared it to the promotion criteria for Professor. As I placed the two documents side by side everything fell in to place and I could see that I met the criteria. I did the same with my mapping document and the National Teaching Fellowship (NTF) criteria too, and again I felt encouraged to see that I also met these. The long and short of it is that two years on from achieving SFHEA I have achieved promotion to Chair and am one of the University’s three nominees for National Teaching Fellow (I’ll find out about the latter soon). But there is more! Because completing the mapping document and writing my cases for promotion and NTF also helped me see more clearly where I wanted to go in my career. They helped me clarify my passion not just for teaching and learning, but for supporting the academic development of others. Indeed, my whole career has been built upon this, but it took writing it down in my SFHEA, promotion and NTF applications to really recognise this! But the moment that I did things fell in to place swiftly, and in autumn 2021 I became the University’s Academic Lead for Academic Development. I have also become a LEAP Assessor and the Academic Lead for the Manchester Gold mentoring scheme, and I have had the opportunity to work with the marvellous Institute for Teaching and Learning on a number of their workshops. Sharing and supporting the development of others brings me such joy and I literally could not be happier!

To conclude on an even more exuberant note, the most joyous thing is that these various wonderful activities have fed into the next step in my Fellowship journey, and I have just submitted my Principal Fellowship application. This time it was much easier to write – not only because I have got considerably better at writing about my own teaching and learning, but also because I have been able to lead on strategies for helping others (and myself!) to carve out the space to write that I struggled with so much by running a series of “Pomodoro” writing sessions.  

The previous paragraph should really be my last – I think I may have broken all the “short and snappy” rules of blog writing already! But I wanted to conclude with an important note, which is to highlight that my own ambling route towards HEA Fellowship is not the norm. Thankfully it is now standard practice at Manchester that completion of the New Academics Programme leads to the award of FHEA, and the LEAP is open to colleagues at all stages of their teaching and learning journey to help them gain and develop their HEA accreditation.  This tremendous programme provides the scaffolding, support and training for colleagues to apply for the next step of their Fellowship journey through workshops, peer support and mentoring, as well as online communities of practice and Pomodoro sessions. In addition, the opportunity to submit your Fellowship application in a range of different formats, with several submission deadlines spaced throughout the year, mean that it really is now easier than ever to not just carve out the time, but to actively commit to and be supported in your professional development. As I hope this blog shows, this can be such an edifying and transformative process. If you are thinking of taking the next step and becoming a Fellow or applying for the next level of Fellowship, I hope you find this too, and I wish you the very best of luck!  

Hannah wrote this post for TEA just before this year’s AdvanceHE National Teaching Fellows (NTF) were announced: we’re thrilled to add that Hannah has now been named as a new NTF, along with Adam Danquah, Senior Lecturer in Clinical Psychology and Associate Dean for Inclusive Education and Engagement in FBMH.  We’re delighted for Hannah and Adam on their much-deserved NTF success, and we look forward to bringing you more on this.  You can also find out more about National Teaching Fellowships in Patricia Clift Martin’s blog on how supporting the AdvanceHE Teaching Excellence Awards at the University is a real highlight of her role.  

Pomodoro sessions will be available throughout 2022/23 for colleagues who would welcome the opportunity to protect some time to work on LEAP applications (or other pieces of writing). For details about these, and all our sessions, please visit our Upcoming Events page on the ITL website and join TALON.