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I’ve been spending unpaid hours the past few days preparing to teach another semester of introductory biology, and one of the lessons I learned last semester has returned to haunt me: teaching is hard. Well, GOOD teaching is hard.

Many of you would classify that observation in the “duh” category, but judging by what teachers get paid and by the bogglingly stupid aphorism “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach,” there are plenty of folks out there who believe teaching a sinecure with long, lazy summers. I didn’t quite grasp the challenge until it was staring me in the face—a classroom of students on the first day.

Artist's rendition of students staring me in the face on the first day of class.

Artist's rendition of students staring me in the face on the first day of class.

To my teachers, I send a heartfelt apology—I didn’t appreciate you enough. For those of you who have never taught before, I will attempt to explain why my first year of teaching was such a challenge. There is so much to deal with, I could easily write a book, but I’ve tried to compress it into a lengthy blog post instead.

For any new hire in a large institution, there are operational processes and office politics to figure out. How do I make copies? How do I reserve library materials and order laboratory supplies? Who fixes computer glitches or plumbing problems, and how quickly? How do I access student rosters and operate the electronic grades submission system? What do I do if I need time off? What are the personality quirks and pet peeves of my co-workers? Who is the best person to ask questions of? Are there people who will take advantage of me? Who are the experts on what subjects, and are there turf battles?

Learning how to operate in my institutional environment hasn’t been too hard. The tough part is the actual teaching, which involves three areas of expertise: students, subject matter, and teaching techniques.

Students

Beyond the normal office relationships, teaching requires appropriate interpersonal relationships with hundreds of students—new ones every semester. Community colleges in particular can be more challenging because of the mix of students involved, and their variety of educational backgrounds, life experiences, and ages. To better draw these diverse students into a class and help them succeed, I need to show interest in them as individuals and help them feel comfortable. In one class I might have:

  • a newly minted high school graduate
  • a student making another attempt at higher ed after failing out of a university
  • a newlywed
  • a single parent
  • a laid-off factory worker
  • a divorced person suddenly needing a better-paying job
  • a mid-careerperson looking to get ahead
  • a retiree wanting to keep their mind sharp

Interpersonal relationships and classroom behavior

A huge portion of a community college instructor’s success lies in the ability to relate to and manage students. An instructor needs to maintain authority, yet remain approachable. The part-time faculty guidebook at my college cites traits of a successful community college instructor that I would summarize as describing a psychologically well-grounded person:

  • Emotionally stable and mature
  • Confident in resolving their own personal problems
  • Reasonably unselfish, modest, and free from excessive ego

I can see where these attributes come in handy, given the situations that arise in class. Here are some behavioral issues I’ve dealt with in the past year:

  • a student whose constant refrain in class is “this sucks”
  • a student physically cornering me after class because they want to discuss course policies they don’t like
  • a student winking at me and making suggestive statements
  • a student trying to milk assignment answers out of me, then yelling and accusing me of trying to confuse things
  • a student raising and pushing a racially charged falsehood in a mixed-race classroom
  • students discussing how much they despise certain cultural groups
  • a student who loves to dominate class time with nonsequitur monologues
  • a student who sleeps in the back of the room every class period

Student policies

The interpersonal dimension of working with students is linked to institutional policies involving students, and the nuances of the policies as they’re written and practiced. How do the privacy guarantees under FERPA affect what I can say? When am I permitted or required to drop a student from a class? What do I do with student athlete progress report requests from the athletic department? How do I handle a student who managed to enroll in my class without meeting administrative requirements? How do I handle students who want to enroll in my class after the semester has begun?

The three policy issues that were most important to me during my first semester were my course syllabus, the college academic honesty policy, and student requests to make up missed work or turn assignments in late.

Course syllabus

The item of course preparation that causes me the most heartburn is the course syllabus. This sets the foundation of expectations for the class and serves as a contract for how the class will be operated. I am not a lawyer, and I get nervous drafting a document about which my part-time faculty guide reminds me:

If a student goes to the grievance committee or the courts, the course syllabus becomes the primary piece of reference. Write it based on the assumption that you will have to defend it. We are in an era of student challenges, and you need to be prepared.

Granted, I can use other instructors’ syllabi as templates. Still, I go over my syllabus again and again, wondering where the loopholes are (the students will find them!) and how I can draft things to make my life easier.

Makeups and late work

One of the toughest issues for me to deal with is finding a just balance between syllabus policies and legitimate exceptions for students who miss class or want to turn in late assignments. Students are people too, and have lives and dramas outside the classroom. Some of them miss class because of jobs, court dates, personal illness, or sick children. Some of them simply disappear for days on end, then show up again without explanation. I have to make judgments about when and how to allow flexibility.

Academic honesty

I think every teacher starts out believing the best of students, that they would never cheat. Then reality hits. Three students’ assignments are identical, two students’ odd answers on a homework assignment are suspiciously similar, a block of essay text is too well written, a forgotten crib sheet is found after an exam. When I uncover these incidents in my classes, I must enforce the academic honesty policy and take on the role of a cheating investigator: talk to the parties involved, decide on a plan of corrective action, and file a report. This investigator role is very unpleasant, but is a critical part of those students’ education.

Learning to manage a classroom of students was my most immediate challenge in my first year. With more experience, I think student management will become easier (though surely there will always be a few “difficult” students). The other two major challenges I faced – course subject matter and teaching techniques – I believe are never-ending processes. While a good platform of subject matter and teaching techniques can be built up for a particular class, the platform must be flexible to respond to changing needs and information.

Subject matter

The first order of business in course development is figuring out what topics to cover. Sometimes, a course catalog lays out the required topics, but the instructor isn’t off the hook. It’s not that simple.

Say the catalog states that the course must cover DNA, RNA, and protein synthesis. Sure, that sounds straightforward, until I start to consider the appropriate level of detail to include. Do the students know what DNA is? What protein is? Do they know why the structure of these molecules is important? Do they know what a molecule is? What will the students need this information for? Will they be using this class as a prerequisite to another class? What are they expected to know upon entering that class? Do they just need to understand generally how gene expression influences health to be able to understand news reports or doctor’s instructions? Or do they need to understand more detail about the mechanics of the process? Should introns, exons, and micro RNA be discussed so students better understand a later unit on biotechnology?

If I’m teaching a topic, the students tend to view me as a subject expert. To feel comfortable in front of a class, I need to have a really solid understanding of the subject I’m teaching, so I can answer questions coherently. However, there will always be student questions I can’t answer. I need to be familiar enough with the subject area that I know where to look up the information or, better yet, help the students figure out where they can find the answers themselves.

An especial challenge of teaching science is inherent in the discipline. By its nature, science is a constant process of challenging theories, developing new hypotheses, and making new discoveries. The information in science texts is outdated by the time it gets published. As a science teacher, I am obligated to keep up with the flow of information to make sure what I’m teaching my students is up to date.

Teaching technique

Once I’ve figured out the topics to include in a class, I need to figure out how to transfer to my students both the information included in the course. Lacking the ability to simply download everything directly into the students’ brains, I need to make the students want to learn. I need to spark student interest in the topic and present all this “science stuff” as being fun and relevant to their lives. I need to be entertaining and put on a good, organized lecture audience-participation show. I need to help students understand why all this stuff matters and help them relate it to concepts they already understand from previous experience (which can be tough in a diverse community college class).

People process information in different ways, and students may not understand that they each have a different learning style that they can use to their own benefit. I can help by talking about how I manage to learn all the stuff I’m teaching. I can also find different methods of conveying information. I know I can’t just stand at the front of the room and talk at students and expect them to learn. For each topic I teach, I need to figure out the best combination of techniques: lecture, reading (textbook or articles), lab, worksheet, computer assignment, writing assignment (short response or essay), group discussion, modeling, acting out—anything that might work.

There’s also the challenge of teaching students with vastly different academic backgrounds and physical or cognitive abilities. Despite course prerequisites, some students might need help with basic skills like reading, math, or study techniques. Part of my responsibility as a teacher is to identify these students and point them in the direction of the college resources that can help get them up to speed. Some students need accommodation under the ADA, and I may need to provide extra time on exams, or solicit a note-taker in the class, or make my lecture outline available.

I can go through a ton of effort to find ways of getting through to my students, but I won’t know if they’ve gotten the message unless I find a way to test them on it. But how do you figure out if a student is learning? What do you ask them, and how? I know I’ve taken tests before that didn’t match the information I thought I needed to know for class. I need to clearly communicate to my students what I expect them to know, and design assessments that will determine if they know it. Student assessment is not a simple topic; it has been the subject of several prep-week meetings at my college this academic year, and volumes have been written about it. Part of the trouble is that “assessment” isn’t synonymous with “test”. There is more to assessment than deciding whether to use essay, short answer, or multiple-choice formats.

I could ramble on for pages more about the nuances of student assessment from the viewpoint of a first-year teacher, but my head is swimming from all the above STUFF I will face in the upcoming semester (and I have it easy; as a part-time, temporary instructor, I don’t have the additional obligations to serve on committees, participate in professional societies, advise student groups, etc.). I will stop here to spare you further pain.

In summary, teaching is hard. Especially for a perfectionist like me. Teaching is not a science—it is an art, and there can be no perfection in art, no matter how much I work. The joy in the job is partly that as well. For a lifelong learner, teaching provides a constant challenge to learn about geeky-cool science stuff, to learn about teaching, and to learn from my students. Let the semester begin!

Text copyright 2009 by Katie Bradshaw

Images in composite credited to bigdodaddy, dmy, harrykeely, obyvatel, larar, jervexster, arinas74, and ontzy of sxc.hu

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Back in 2005, I realized I was getting addicted to travel. In successive years, thanks to the spouse’s conferences and a study abroad trip, I had the opportunity to travel to Scotland, Australia, and Tanzania. I learned so much during my journeys that I swear I could feel the sparkle of new brain synapses making connections in my head. I wanted to travel more, to learn more!

Since I’d managed to get to three continents in three years, I got a wild hare to try to visit another continent the following year. Happily, mi esposo wanted to go too, as long as he could investigate some exotic insects. Processing various whims and practicalities, we decided that 2006 would be the year for South America, and, specifically, Argentina. We wanted to travel cross-country by bus, without tour guides, to get as much direct experience with the country as possible. One problem—I studied the wrong language in high school (French) and spoke little Spanish beyond gracias, cerveza, and baño, and hubby didn’t speak much Spanish either.

This is the story of how I taught myself enough Spanish to get by.

argspan

Strong determination to learn the language

I’d had a previous experience that convinced me language learning was necessary for travel. Before I went to Tanzania, I learned a few dozen Swahili words. One day, we hiked up to the summit of an old volcanic crater. Our guide, Daktari, who spoke no English, indicated that we needed to descend the opposite side of the crater from which we had come up. Several people in our group were too tired to go on, unless the indicated path was the way back to the vehicle.

I pointed in the direction Daktari wanted to go. “Gari?” I asked.

Daktari shook his head, pointed in the direction we had come and said “gari.” Then he pointed in the new direction, said “maji,” and trailed his fingers down like rain.

Simply knowing the Swahili words for “car” and “water” allowed me to figure out that Daktari was leading us to see a waterfall before heading back to the car. The exhausted members of our party were able to rest awhile at the summit instead of slogging down to the falls. I decided from that moment that whenever I traveled, I would learn as much of the local language as I could.

Powerful motivators: a deadline and fear

In September, I had started kicking around the idea of traveling to Argentina, but I didn’t really commit to the idea until December, when I decided to go to Argentina the following May. I had about six months to get myself some Spanish fluency. Yikes! This short, specific deadline was a great way to keep myself on task. Also, I am a congenital worrier. I imagined myself wandering lost and distressed in some Argentine city, unable to communicate my needs. What might befall me if I wasn’t able to speak passable Spanish? Fear is a powerful motivator!

A multi-pronged approach to language study

I figured that if I was going to learn enough Spanish to be functional, I was going to have to expose myself to the language in as many ways as possible. I took advantage of every opportunity—a variety of activities that forced me to (in increasing order of difficulty):

  • Learn vocabulary
  • Write
  • Listen
  • Speak

Formal instruction

My first impulse was to take a formal class. Unfortunately, all of the introductory Spanish classes at the local community college were full and closed. Then I happened on a press release for an Iowa State Extension Spanish immersion weekend. Immersion sounded productive. I signed up.

The class used a simple textbook from Pronto Spanish. The instructors introduced us to vocabulary—politeness phrases, colors, numbers, foods, body parts, family members—and immediately challenged us to make use of it. One of my favorite parts of the class was learning the vocabulary associated with a salsa recipe and then going to a local tienda to purchase the ingredients and actually make the salsa. Having access to cable television was a bonus, too: I stuck to my weekend immersion experience by watching Telemundo in my hotel room in the evening.

The class was very successful in two respects. First, I got a sense of how much work it would take for me to be able to comfortably spit out a Spanish sentence in conversation. Second, I will never forget Spanish greetings. To this day, I have “¿Cómo Se Llama Usted?” from the ¡Viva La Música! album etched in my brain.

Vocabulary study

Obviously, to be able to speak a language, you have to know the vocabulary. I got myself a good Spanish-English dictionary and set about memorizing words. I spent every weekend and many evenings writing vocabulary words over and over again and then testing myself on those words. I also created a home-immersion experience for myself by putting up Spanish vocabulary labels all over the house.

Even the cat helped me learn Spanish.

Even the cat helped me learn Spanish. (She's a black cat sitting on a black chair.)

A “pen pal”

I was forced to practice composing Spanish sentences when I tried to reserve accommodation for our first overnight stay. I sent an email query in English; they responded in Spanish. I consulted my dictionary and 501 Spanish Verbs book and commenced a conversation about prices, bank transfers, and credit card numbers.

“Destinos”

I checked out a series of educational telenovela videos–entitled “Destinos“–from the local library. These videos were fantastic at helping me improve my aural comprehension. The speakers enunciated clearly, and I got exposure to regional accents. Also, I got caught up in storyline—would Raquel be able to track down the mysterious connections of the Castillo family?

One-on-one accountability

nelly

Nelly also taught me to make a pisco sour.

Through an international women’s conversation group I participated in, I met a Peruvian woman named Nelly, who was improving her English in preparation for the U.S. citizenship test. We agreed to help each other with our language studies. Nelly was a firm taskmistress. She hand-wrote lists of vocabulary for me, corrected sentences she assigned me to write, and forced me to practice speaking. This sense of accountability from another person really kept me on track.

Group conversation

Every Friday I had lunch with a group of people who wanted to practice their Spanish language skills to keep them sharp. (One of the group members moved to Panama and opened a B&B.) Often there was a native speaker present to assist with learning—the group pitched in to pay for that person’s lunch. I listened to the conversation and sometimes spoke, pausing long and stuttering and often saying no sais la palabra. This was critical, real-world practice that helped me get over my fear of speaking.

The results

Before we departed, I had a dream in which I spoke Spanish. I was hanging laundry on a line when someone in a pickup truck raced across the yard and plowed my clothes into the red soil. I shouted, “mi falda es succia” and chased after the truck, shaking my fist and wishing I knew how to curse. When I awoke, I was excited—my subconscious knew Spanish! I figured our trip would go OK.

We arrived in Buenos Aires, made it to the bus station, and I was able to purchase our onward bus tickets entirely in Spanish—a conversation that involved questions about proper ID, destination, choice of seats, and method of payment. When the tickets were secure, we turned away from the counter, and my husband said, “Wow, hon.”

That was one of the proudest moments of my life.

While we had plenty of moments of incomprehension, we still managed to travel a couple thousand miles around the country by bus, reserving lodging as we went (sometimes even over the phone).

In the intervening years, my Spanish language skills have been slipping a bit. I am now resuming my effort to attain Spanish competency, as the population of the new community I will be moving to is about 25% Hispanic.

I think staying in a Panama B&B for awhile would be good practice . . .

Copyright 2009 by Katie Bradshaw

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Before starting this blog, I read several books and lurked in the blogosphere to figure out, first of all, what blogs are (since I didn’t own a cell phone until mid-2008, it’s not surprising I didn’t know this). I also wanted to know what makes a good blog.

jargon

I’ve distilled in this post some of what I’ve learned, which I’ll try to use in my blog posts. However, ancora imparo. Whenever I stray from my ideal, feel free to let me know!

Blogging is like the game Othello: it takes a minute to learn and a lifetime to master.  (The Huffington Post Complete Guide to Blogging p. 24)

What are blogs?

I once thought that blogs were mainly an outlet for political rants, personal journals, and marketing stunts. They are that, but they can also be a platform to foment change, a collection point for specialized information, a source of entertainment, a community of people linked by their interest in a subject, and much more. Blogs provide an equalizing effect, allowing more people to publish their opinions and news to the wider world without barriers of cost, geography, or editorial restrictions. Additionally, blogs allow two-way, active communication, not just a top-down, passive dissemination of information.

What makes a good blog?

Stick to one topic

The best blogs center around one general topic and are written for a specific audience. Each blog posting focuses on a single idea that is stated in the title and restated in the beginning of the posting. Each posting is more than just an anecdote and has a take-away lesson.

Help the reader

A glass of water from the fire hose

The Internet is chock-a-block with information. Good keywords, categories, and titles can help readers find a post and determine if they want to read it. To keep readers updated on new blog posts without having to check back to the site, include options for an RSS feed and an email subscription. To allow readers to refer back to a specific blog post rather than wading through the main site, include a permalink in each post.

Style

While a chattier, informal writing style is common in blogs, good grammar and spell checking lend legitimacy. Short posts and visual elements – such as photos, headers, bulleted lists, and offset quotes – that break up a “wall of text” will make a post more attractive to busy readers. A punchy, pithy first paragraph that states the point of the post will draw readers (especially when only the first paragraph is displayed in an RSS feed).

Build a readership and a community

The greater the number of readers, the better the chance of developing a blog community whose members will suggest improvements and help scout for relevant new topics.

Recruit readers through personal contacts via email, social networking sites, and old-school business cards. Links to social bookmarking sites on each blog entry will increase visibility. Sending helpful, blog-related information to local mainstream media sources can elevate a blogger to “hometown smartypants” on a subject and drive more readership. Commenting on and linking to other blogs (“trackbacks”) will also funnel more readers.

Drawing readers into a sense of community and ownership in a blog will suck them into reading regularly (“lurking”) and may spur them to actively contribute. Bloggers should encourage and respond to reader comments and ask for specific feedback. Because the openness of the internet brings out the snark and basest commercial instincts in people, a comments moderation policy is critical to control spam, trolls (disruptive or off-topic remarks), and flaming (personal attacks) that will drive readers away.

Keep it interesting

Regular posts (2-3 times per week is a common suggestion) keep a blog fresh, give readers a “fix”, also help boost the ability to be found on search engines. Tried-and-true journalism techniques draw interest as well: true personal stories, a sense of place (conjured by describing view, feel, taste, smell, sound), or a surprise or emotional connection.

Exploit the Internet

The ability to add hyperlinks to other sources of information makes a blog a rich medium (although too many hyperlinks are distracting). Links in posts can back up a point or add another layer of meaning. Links to previous posts on a topic (a “thread”) brings the richness of a conversation to a blog.

Books I read on this topic

The Huffington Post Complete Guide to Blogging. By the editors of the Huffington Post. Simon & Schuster 2008.

I wouldn’t call this book a “complete” guide to blogging. It gives a good overview of the big-picture how-to of blogging, but not a lot in the way of technical details. It is pragmatic about the likelihood of making money off a blog (not likely). A strength of this book is the number of comments contributed, which makes the book feely “bloggy”. A downfall of the book is its focus on the Huffington Post and its political leanings, which will likely turn many people off.

Blogging for Dummies, 2nd Edition. Susannah Gardner and Shane Birley. For Dummies 2008

This book has good information on the details of setting up a blog, though it sometimes includes too many specifics. Several topics belong in another book altogether (such as how to use Blogger and how to write HTML). Strengths of the book include deciding whether to blog, what to blog about, choosing your blog platform, and which features to incorporate. The book discusses making money from your blog, which I think is unrealistic.

Blogging America: the new public sphere. Aaron Barlow. Greenwood Publishing Group 2008.

This book was more of an academic overview of the phenomenon of blogging, and somewhat boring other than the final chapter, which provided examples of the scope of blogs within the genre of Christian bloggers.

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to Kate Hopper and Bonnie Rough, who fortuitously introduced me to the value of blogging during The Loft Literary Center’s  Memoir Festival.

Copyright 2009 by Katie Bradshaw

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