Can we talk? …about teaching communities
One of the most consistent comments I’ve heard about being a teacher in higher education is the lack of community. Oh sure, there’s departmental meetings, college meetings, trainings and workshops, but very few occasions to converse with colleagues on what’s happening in our classrooms. Every time we held a meeting for our teaching fellows and mentors, I always received happy chatter on how uplifting it was to talk about teaching with other educators experiencing the same things in class.
Many times, our new faculty find few opportunities to talk about teaching, especially in the hectic race and stress-filled years leading up to tenure. The focus on research, publishing, sitting on committees, soliciting letters of recommendation and documentation of student evaluations, among other things, leaves little time for a casual conversation on how to get students to put down their iPhones, stop checking their Facebook, be more engaged in classroom discussion and group work, and be enthralled by discovery and creativity in our classes. In addition, few higher ed teachers want to admit to their senior colleagues that they need this outlet, or have questions.
As a high school history teacher, when I entered the world of higher education I found this lack of community and daily sharing surprising. Us secondary school educators do little else but talk about our students, classrooms, teaching techniques, how to get our students to do the reading, write a decent essay, participate in class. We share battle stories and successes, send each other articles and tips we’ve found, lesson plans we experimented with that worked, and what to avoid. Classroom management is a huge conversation starter, and most between class periods are spent chuckling over how many cell phones we confiscated that day. Collaboration is the way to stay sane in the teaching game.
Though there are marked differences between teaching high school and teaching college level, the students aren’t much different. We all inherit the academic habits (mostly bad), the absorption with social media, texting, personal drama, and lack of engagement. We all think about how to overcome these obstacles and be able to TEACH. We all want to light a fire in our students, show them the beauty of our disciplines. Community collegial support is critical to learning from each other, and knowing that we aren’t alone.
Last year, I initiated faculty teaching circles, a series of informal discussion groups of faculty from a variety of disciplines who sat around a table, munched on crudités, sipped on coffee and tea, and talked teaching. I discovered several common threads that were on the forefront of our conversations.
- Adjuncts feel all alone. While tenured and tenure track full time faculty have more access to their colleagues and professional support, adjuncts are adrift at sea with no Wilson ball to bounce off ideas, experiences, or questions. Adjuncts are the wall flowers of higher ed, and most institutions count adjuncts as nearly half their teaching faculty.
- Everyone struggles with lecture versus group work pedagogy. There are dozens of situations in which lecture trumps group work, in which group work is preferable to lecture, and the variance from discipline to discipline of which technique is more effective is a persistent question faculty struggle with. Often times if they aren’t lecturing, they feel guilty, like they should be lecturing. When they do group work, they worry about the lack of balance and often disgruntled feedback they receive from students, and yet, the research says, do more group work! Discussing these feelings and listening to senior faculty share their experience and tactics help enormously in relieving anxiety and offering solutions.
- Technology is frustrating. This common thread has so many points of contention for faculty, that it is refreshing to find the teacher who has a good grasp of technology, knows what can deliver curriculum most effectively, and is able to drown out the constant barrage of new bells and updated whistles. The complaints run as such: instability (Blackboard is down AGAIN!), confusing and complicated implementation, the mistaken belief that our students are tech savvy and can figure out simple instructions, unreliable IT support, instructional designers who believe all pedagogical goals can be met with a new “tool”. And this doesn’t even begin to address the “technology” that our students bring to class. That falls under…
- Student behavior. We often circle around to the students, and our inability to figure them out. Why aren’t they all like we were, i.e. model students with an inbred excitement for learning? How come we have to convince them that our course is necessary, this information is useful, that concepts are more important than what’s on the test? How many sad stories do we accept before we stop allowing absences, make up work, deadline extensions? To laptop, or not to laptop? Make an issue of the phone, or try to integrate it into content delivery and response (clickers anyone?)?
The point of all of this is, we need each other. We need to talk and collaborate on teaching. The relief from anxiety and ego boost that comes with knowing that we belong to a community with shared goals and experiences cannot be overstated. Let’s converse about teaching at university, as my contention is (there’s tons of research) that a support system in place that values all teachers, provides validation and opportunities for sharing and questions, leads to better teachers, which leads to…better student learning. Though a discussion group can’t promise solutions, as there aren’t always easy solutions to the challenges of teaching, it can offer collaboration, commiseration, and avenues to searching for solutions that might not otherwise be available.
I can’t take credit for thinking up the teaching circles, which invites all faculty and staff involved with student learning to drop in and talk, talk, talk. I borrowed the suggestion from a POD post (Professional and Organizational Network listserv). Even virtual conversations can provide a strong network of colleagues who can be counted on to answer your question, tap your experience, and provide an outlet.
PS. A colleague recently shared this humorous article on attempting to corral faculty: http://chronicle.com/blognetwork/researchcentered/2011/09/23/advanced-faculty-wrangling-techniques/
A few pointers from my experience concerning trying to get faculty to join:
- Establish that these meetings are informal conversations, not gripe sessions and not evaluative. They are non-judgmental (everyone has concerns about their teaching!), constructive, informational, and collegial.
- Bring your own talking points -suggest articles, discuss recent headlines or research, or share an anecdote from a colleague, e.g. “someone I know had this happen to them…”
- Provide food and drink. Self-explanatory.
- Offer several dates and times. Schedules are never complementary; faculty will come when they can, in between all their other commitments. Assume they want to be there, so be flexible with the when.
- Follow up! Recommend research or contacts that may be able to address specific topics post-meeting.