Friday, February 24, 2017

An Open Letter to Faculty Who Do Not Participate in PD

     We are finishing up our carefully-crafted, collaborative, and offered-with-stipend Winter Quarter Professional Development options at my institution. Our theme for this year, "Intentional Teaching" has a focus on building a shared teaching vocabulary for faculty around Reading Apprenticeship (RA) and Universal Design for Learning (UDL), two teaching approaches that are making a difference in helping our students succeed. In response to feedback from faculty, we have organized these to best fit everyone's hopes, needs and schedule:

  • They are offered online, so that both evening and daytime instructors can participate, on their own time. 
  • They are for BOTH full time and adjunct instructors; no one is excluded. 
  • But wait! Faculty like to see each other in person too, so a quarterly, free, "Connect with Faculty" lunch is provided, on a non-teaching day, for all participants. 
  • They offer a small stipend for participation; last year with the first time this was made possible. 
  • They have been planned, based on feedback, as 6-week workshops, offered mid-quarter so that faculty can concentrate on getting their classes going and wrapping up at the beginning and end of each quarter. 
  • Faculty have the opportunity to both suggest topics and lead a workshop, for an extra stipend.
  • They are "learn today use tomorrow" workshops that tie directly to teaching.
  • They have flexible weekly deadlines for busy faculty.
     I am thrilled with our participation; we have had about 40 faculty each quarter take part in the workshops.  Each quarter, new faculty give it a try and become "hooked."  But as the coordinator, I am still distressed at the number of faculty who do not participate at all; some are newer faculty who feel overwhelmed and don't know how much these would help; some are old-timers who have a set policy among buddies to Not Let Them Make Me Do Anything Not In My Contract, and some are (surprising, in my mind) tenure-track faculty. Since they don't participate, they don't know what they are missing. The workshops offer:

  • A chance to better your student engagement
  • A chance to get to know faculty you don't normally see or have time to talk to
  • A chance to share your own ideas and get some great ones from others
  • A chance to experience our learning system as a student, so you can better understand the student experience
  • A chance to get a stipend; recognition from the college for your efforts.

     According to surveys and conversations, the #1 reason non-participants cite is that they are too busy. But while they are too busy, the world of teaching and learning are changing.  While they are too busy, participants are gaining teaching expertise that they have never even heard of.  While they are too busy, participants are finding ways to better engage our students. While they are too busy, participants are discovering that this actually helps reduce the workload of their busy schedules.While they are too busy, data shows that participants are helping their students succeed at a higher rate than the non-participants. Higher. Retention. Rates. 

     Well-crafted PD - the kind I am talking about here - is meaningful, enjoyable, and fun.  If you have already decided you are too busy, you should think again. It is easy to think that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence; that other institutions offer get-rich-quick PD and you are stuck in a demanding job that just keeps demanding more from you, and you don't have the time. But the grass is watered and green right in your own backyard, if you step out and take a stroll.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Secret to Increased Student Retention

There is a big push in our local community and technical college system to both increase retention and move more students towards degree completion.  This is an ongoing struggle, as we are working with students whose lives are split between work, family and school. Sometimes it feels like the harder we - the institutions -  try, the harder it gets. My own institution, Renton Technical College, has an open entry system that  allows for anyone in the community to register for the program of their choice with relative ease and get started on learning job skills.  The problem is keeping them until program completion.  Why would someone invest the time, money and effort  in starting a program only to leave after one or two quarters? The pat "look on the positive side" answer is usually that they found a job; the less flattering one is that their language skills or study skills weren't up to par.  But amazingly,  it is never that they weren't being taught well.

This is the elephant in the room. We need to train our teachers to reach our learners where they are at.  At community and technical colleges we have so many teachers who are subject matter experts from the field who have very little or absolutely no training in how to teach.  This is a glaring problem that we need to face.  We have older teachers who have been teaching in a "sage on the stage; read a chapter and take a test" form for years who are now seeing internet-savvy students walk away because they can get so much of what they need on their own, and who want to learn from someone who engages them on multiple levels. And immigrant students  - who used to be a classroom minority - are now the majority, and need to be recognized and have their needs identified and their abilities acknowledged.

This could all be solved with some expectations and guidelines for teachers to be updated with current teaching practices and ongoing chances to experiment, share and collaborate.  Just like students, they need a clear pathway to success, not a foggy "go and do it" approach to their jobs. Unlike K-12 educators, higher education does not require teachers to be certified in any way on teaching itself, but perhaps this is the moment where that should shift.  No amount of expertise in any given field will help you when you are working with students from all ages, backgrounds, and goals. If a system and a school want to increase retention and completion rates, they should look first and foremost at improving the very thing that education is all about: Teaching and Learning.

English 101 students at RTC