In UK101 “Academic Orientation” UK students are expected to go to a professor’s office hours, introduce themselves and get to know them as human beings… breaking down the cultural barriers that too often contribute to our first- or second-year students dropping out of school. We also hand out brochures from the UK Counseling Center encouraging students to get to know their instructors with great tips on how to get the conversation going (download here the .pdf file, “Tips for Talking with Professors“). But do we think to talk among ourselves as educators about how to talk with students in a nurturing way to help create a climate of student success?
This is a question that Bob Bradley, Associate Athletics Director/Student Services, asked during a meeting of the “Making a Difference – Continuing the Conversation” group last year. As a result the group asked Bob to take a leadership role in following up on this issue. After some initial meetings with professional staff across campus, Bradley compiled comments from student focus groups on how UK instructors (1) present their subject material, and (2) relate to students and create an inclusive environment in the classroom. The summary of those student responses were sent to selected faculty whose reputations as nurturing faculty at is legendary: Kathi Kern (History), Phil Kraemer (Psychology), Derek Lane (Communication), Kim Woodrum (Chemistry).
Recently, these faculty were brought together in a focus group to respond to the students’ perceptions. In addition, the subgroup members from “Making a Difference – Continuing the Conversation” invited Dr. Morris Grubbs, Assistant Dean in the Graduate School, Office of Graduate Student Development, to provide insight on the role of teaching assistants in nurturing students in the classroom. The UK Athletics Association sponsored the luncheon convened by Bob Bradley and facilitated by Ben Withers, Interim Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education. The following is a short version of a summary from that focus group session with the faculty and Dr. Grubbs.
To start the conversation among the focus group members about the value of including the topic of “nurturing students” in faculty development opportunities, Dr. Withers asked: “What does “nurturing” mean in UK’s culture?” He gave as an example that in faculty discussions about the role of UK101 “Academic Orientation” course, there had been some mention of it being seen as “handholding” students and keeping them from taking on the responsibilities for learning about college life themselves. The focus group members responded in exciting ways:
Faculty at UK need to hear and believe what students perceive about them (e.g., New Faculty session with First Gen students last fall was brutally honest about real life experiences in the classroom.) Many instructors still see “coverage” of “essential facts” as their image of successful teaching: 30 minutes of material that needs to be covered but only has 10 minutes left, he/she just speeds up. This seems to students a lack of concern as to what the students should be learning. A Faculty Teaching Academy could be established for first time teaching faculty. Seminars could be directed at solving classroom problems for new teachers.
Nurturing at UK is not “handholding” – it’s creating connections, assuring an intentionality, since training for the PhD is fundamentally separate from training for teaching, a guiding strategy is to be aware of how you as instructor are being perceived by students, much of this is to recognize how the challenges they had in their own life might relate to what their students are experiencing. Often, our typical descriptions of student groupings (e.g., first generation or African-American) doesn’t align well with instructors’ understandings of how to address diverse students’ needs – there are so many more differences that get overlooked. Faculty (especially those inexperienced in the classroom) need additional support due to their anxieties about promotion and tenure – they are in a precarious position of authority.
“Nurturing” means creating an immediacy to students’ success, being sure not to construct barriers between students and the academic content they are learning, while university faculty are hired based on their credibility in their academic area they may not be competent in teaching – so it also means bringing a sense of fairness to the classroom culture (recognizing differences between students’ situational characteristics and not expecting them to all be experiencing UK exactly the same, e.g., student athletes have a different schedule of work). Be intentional about pedagogical design to encourage student engagement in class and this lets the students understand (even if the instructor is not particularly personable or charismatic) that it matters to the instructor that the students are successful; let the students “take over” in applying their knowledge – create a “collaboratorium” with common ground for students to collaborate, discuss, problem-solve and generate new knowledge.
There are many ways to address diversity in the classroom – it’s not just ethnicity or gender, also situational (students bring greatly diverse backgrounds of knowledge and attitudes into the classroom). Faculty should enter the classroom willing to act a little silly, to reveal your personal self, to show “I am human.”
The whole group discussed together whether good teaching is important to the University of Kentucky. There is probably a relationship between good teaching and retention, but faculty are not rewarded for good teaching in a regularized or standard way. One of the focus group members remembered hearing that a dean asked department chairs to name “the best teachers” in his college and gave those faculty raises.
The group agreed that more structured research could be done on this topic at UK. Instinctively, however, the focus group members and the support services staff at the meeting feel that a constructive climate in the classroom is critical to retention of students. Instructors need to find their own way in demonstrating somehow that they care about the students — creating a connection between the instructor and the student. This allows the student to be more confident in knowing the instructor is intentional about the student’s success in the classroom.
Here’s a video of Dr. Lane’s advice to faculty on this topic:
Dr. Grubbs said that when he is working with teaching assistants, he emphasizes that “nurturing” students means to show you have empathy, that you embrace the humanity of others and that you intentionally signal that you care. Mentoring research shows however that the protégé must seek out the mentor – the issue is for the students to see the instructor is caring or empathetic enough to be approached. Most instructors talk to their peers about these issues and learn from their peers about how to solve them. Teaching assistants and first time teaching faculty need help to make them feel adequate in the classroom.
Bob Bradley and Ben Withers concluded the focus group session with a promise to move the conversation forward with the help of the Center for Enhancement of Learning and Teaching (CELT), the Graduate School’s Office of Graduate Student Development, and the Associate Provost for Faculty Advancement, Dr. G.T. Lineberry.
The “Making a Difference – Continuing the Conversation” subgroup members who helped to create and sustain this initiative were:
- Bob Bradley (leader), Director, CATS
- Matthew Deffendall, Director, First Generation Initiatives
- Randolph Hollingsworth, Assistant Provost, Division of Undergraduate Education
- Valerie Rister, Learning Specialist, Student Support Services TRIO
- Toni Thomas, Director, CARES
- Aesha Tyler, Senior Staff Psychologist and Outreach Coordinator, UK Counseling Center