The hardest part of teaching?

Today was the faculty and staff Welcome Back BBQ at UBC Okanagan. My Centre for Teaching and Learning had an information table among 25 or so other campus organizations. Always on the lookout to inject a little interaction and teaching and learning, I set up a laptop and i>clicker gear to survey my new colleagues about teaching:

Survey question: What do you think is the hardest part of teaching? (photo: Peter Newbury)

Survey question: What do you think is the hardest part of teaching? (photo: Peter Newbury)

Lots of people stopped at our table to talk, both faculty and staff. Many had heard of clickers but this was their first time ever holding one and clicking. It was really interesting to hear people say, “All of the above!” and then struggle to select one answer. Which is the point of a good peer instruction question – to make you stop and think carefully and deliberately so you decide for yourself which answer to select.

I was pleased by the results:

Results of my survey. Most people felt connecting with students and keeping up with the marking are the hardest parts of teaching. (Photo: Peter Newbury)

Results of my survey. Most people felt connecting with students and keeping up with the marking are the hardest parts of teaching. (Photo: Peter Newbury)

Here’s what I’m thinking about the responses and how my Centre can respond:

A) knowing the material (selected by 18% of the respondents)
It’s true that the instructor needs to know the material. That’s why they were hired/selected to teach the content, after all. What my Centre can add is “pedagogical content knowledge”, that is, knowledge about how people learn the content. For example, we can let an instructor know which topics students struggle with and what are the common misconceptions. We can help the instructor see through their expert blindness.
B) preparing the lessons (21%)
No question that preparing lessons (and the bigger task of designing the course) is hard. There’s nothing my Centre can do to create time for an instructor to prep but we can help make that time productive. We promote the “backward” approach to planning a course by 1) establishing learning outcomes, 2) creating summative and formative assessments aligned to those outcomes, and 3) selecting instructional strategies and education technologies to support the outcomes and assessment. I tell anyone who’ll listen that investing your time in creating learning outcomes pays off many times over. That’s where I recommend people spend time.
C) speaking in front of a group (4%)
As important and critical as this is, public speaking isn’t something my Centre teaches. Sure, we all have experience in front of groups and can offer our own advice but we’re not experts. And, it turns out, people aren’t so concerned about this. Whew.
D) connecting and interacting with students (32%)
This is the answer I pick. There’s technology and templates and guidance for making the other answers easier. Connecting and interacting with students in a meaningful way, which to me means recognizing each student as an individual with their own strengths, that’s hard. It requires sparking a relationship the moment they walk through the door on the first day and then every day, building and maintaining that trust. I distilled some great advice from another group of colleagues about connecting with your diverse collection of students. My Centre is always ready to have conversations about diversity, equity, inclusion, and learning communities.
E) keeping up with the marking (25%)
Ahh, yes, marking. When there’s a lot to do, it’s a circle of Hell. And my Centre isn’t going to do it for you. But we’re ready to help instructors re-imagine and re-design their assessment techniques so that in the limited amount of time available, they can provide formative feedback that supports learning. Maybe that means getting the computer to autograde multiple-choice, not because multiple-choice is a such a good tool but because that could free up time to mark short- and long-answer questions. Maybe there’s a way students evaluate each others’ work. Maybe it’s better to ask fewer, but more probing, questions. My Centre’s goal isn’t to help instructors find ways to do the same marking faster but rather, to help create different assessments.

All in all, I’m really pleased with the responses I got from my colleagues today. And by the enthusiasm for, and recognition of, excellence in teaching and learning.

What do you find the hardest? And what choices should I put on the survey next year?

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Getting to know you

Every one of our students brings their own identity – age, gender, ability, language, ethnic background, orientation, experiences, knowledge, skills. You want to recognize and support and build on each student’s strengths but how do you support one student without accidentally alienating others?

I recently had an opportunity to draw out the experiences of more than 100 colleagues, every one of them leaders in their higher education communities, at the June 2016 meeting of the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning (CIRTL) Network at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Before I get to their advice, a quick story of how this came to be.

The CIRTL Network recently expanded from 23 to 46 institutions and this meeting would be the first time everyone was together. Bob Mathieu, Director of the Network, asked me to run some kind of “getting to know you” icebreaker early on the first day of the meeting. I’m a big fan of icebreakers, maybe not as a student (I hated it when my professors did anything like this) but definitely as an instructor. Icebreakers let you kickstart the learning community you’re going to spend the next 6, 10, 13, 16,… weeks building, maintaining, and relying on in your class. In my opinion, icebreakers are also an opportunity to introduce students to the kinds of thinking, communicating, and collaborating they’ll be doing for the rest of the course. In other words, yes, I’d do an icebreaker at the CIRTL meeting. But it has to be meaningful. Authentic. Inclusive. Valuable. I came up with an idea and I’m  grateful and honoured by the trust Bob put in me to go ahead and push my new colleagues, potentially upsetting some of them:

The rest of this post is divided into 3 parts:

  1. A detailed description of the jigsaw activity, mostly so I can remember what I did because I’d really like to do it again. I’ve written about jigsaw activities before so if you’re not familiar with them, you might want to take a look.
  2. A summary of the remarkable input I received from my 100+ colleagues.
  3. The documents and other resources I used, in case you want to try something like this yourself.

1. Exploring student diversity

In a jigsaw, recall, participants first build/refresh their knowledge of one particular case or example from a collection (like a collection of 4 artists, 5 calculus/integration problems, 6 National parks,…) Then they gather in groups containing one representative of each case or example to share what they know and learn from others.

For the CIRTL meeting, the examples were 6 students you might encounter in your class:

Six different students you might encounter in your classroom. For the purposes of the jigsaw activity, notice they're colour-coded (so people with white or salmon or blue sheets can easily find each other and then rearrange into one-of-each-colour groups) and the students names begin A, B, C, D, E, F so people (with colour blindness) can also find each other by letter. (Screenshot from a document by Peter Newbury CC-BY)

Six students you might encounter in your classroom. For the purposes of the jigsaw activity, notice they’re colour-coded (so people with white or salmon or blue sheets can easily find each other and then rearrange into one-of-each-colour groups) and the students names begin A, B, C, D, E, F so people (with colour blindness, say) can also find each other by letter.
(Screenshot from a document by Peter Newbury CC-BY)

Each meeting participant was assigned to one of these students according to which  coloured worksheet they found in their meeting information packet. The meeting room was set up with tables with 6 chairs, with a coloured/lettered sign on each table. As participants entered the room, they sat at a table with their colour/letter/student.

In Part 1 of the jigsaw, I asked everyone to take 10 minutes to introduce themselves to their new colleagues and then reach consensus on the advice they’d give to a new instructor to

  1. assure their particular student they’re welcome to contribute to the class
  2. build on that student’s diverse voice, strengths, experiences
  3. what not to do

When I said, “…You’ve got 10 minutes. Go!” the room flipped from hesitant, anxious silence to loud, engaged, boisterous conversations. It was great!

As we approached 10 minutes, I reminded everyone to write down their group’s best advice on their worksheets [available below] so they’d have notes/reminders when they moved to Part 2 of the jigsaw. At 10 minutes, everyone re-arranged themselves into one-of-each-student groups (quickly and easily accomplished because of the coloured/lettered paper: look for a group without your colour and sit there!)

I asked them to introduce themselves to 5 more new colleagues and then take turns addressing each of the 3 prompts — assuring students they’re welcome, building on their diverse contributions, and what not to do. Notice I didn’t ask them to go around with the advice for their students, one after another. That would invite each person to talk once, for a while, and then not contribute again. And the representative of the last student might not have time. (Similarly, you’d ask your students to take turns describing the medium preferred by each artist, not all about Picasso, then all about Rodin, then…) I gave them about 20 minutes — many more conversations this time!

In Part 2 of the jigsaw, participants took turns sharing their advice about each student and listening to others. (Photo: Peter Newbury)

In Part 2 of the jigsaw, participants took turns sharing their advice about each student and listening to others.
(Photo: Peter Newbury)

At the end, I asked them to hand-in their worksheets with all their advice and notes and ideas. My plan was try to summarize what they discussed and report back the next day.

In terms of an icebreaker, I think this worked really well. There was no way anyone would be able to introduce themselves to 100 others with any chance of remembering anything. Instead, I opted for deeper, memorable connections with 10 new colleagues. The jigsaw activity met my other criterion, too, that the activity would engage them in an authentic, meaningful discussion, because teaching people to recognize and celebrate the diversity of their audiences is one of CIRTL’s core ideas.

2. So what did they say?

My colleagues wrote 2400 words in 420 responses on their worksheets. I know, I know, I should have approached these data clean and unbiased, ready to let them speak for themselves. Realistically, though, I wasn’t going to be able to properly analyze the responses in the time between Day 1’s conference dinner and the start of Day 2.

I needed a strategy in order to get something done. So I cheated and when looking for the presence (or absence) of something:

What I hoped NOT to find was special advice for students of colour, special advice for students with disabilities, and so on for each student, even if that advice seemed helpful. Why not? Because I fear that in carrying out those recommendations, an instructor would call out the students of colour, the students with disabilities, and each of the others and treat them differently:

“Alicia [the woman of colour], could you tell us what a black person would think of this?”

“Brian [who needs a laptop], you come sit down here at the front where you won’t distract other students with your laptop”

Instructors trying to connect and support their students but may end up doing more damage than if they’d done nothing at all.

What I hoped for, and gloriously found, was the same advice on every worksheet, advice that supports all students and treats all students fairly:

what not to do

  • make assumptions
  • ignore them
  • ask them to speak on behalf of their race/culture

how to assure each student they’re welcome to contribute to the class

how to build on each student’s diverse voice, strengths, experiences

  • have student highlight their own strengths, potential, life experiences
  • “build a community where students value others’ perspectives and listen to each other”

That last suggestion? Wow. If that was the ONLY sentence that came out of this 45-minute icebreaker activity, I’d call that a success.

The excellent news is you don’t need a huge toolbox of techniques, one for each student. Instead, the same behaviours and strategies — respect, acknowledgement, structure, equity — support every student.

3. My diversity jigsaw resources

If you have the opportunity to run a diversity-awareness workshop or discussion with instructors, and are interested in using a jigsaw approach, here are the resources I created for mine. They’re shared under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License so you’re welcome to adopt and adapt, with a link back to me, thanks.

  • worksheets (PDF) – Each participant received a coloured worksheet in their conference info packet
  • here are the slides I used

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Silent on Twitter about my job search

I use Twitter. A lot. It’s my daily, hourly,…, continuous source of information, professional development, and support, and a place where I can give back to the communities that support me when I need it.

I advocate

I describe projects I’m working on

I post my itineraries when I travel

I share the everyday things that interest me

Each of these is also an invitation for people to reply and share their recommendations, ideas, positions,…

Twitter silenced

(Illustration by Peter Newbury. Duct tape via pixabay public domain)

My latest big adventure — starting in July, I’ll be the Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at UBC Okanagan — was more challenging because I chose to suspend this “networked practice,” as Bonnie Stewart @bonstewart calls it. I didn’t share my job search with my Twitter community.

I didn’t describe how I integrated my teaching statement (which they didn’t ask for) into my CV (which they did).

I didn’t post my interview itinerary.

I didn’t share the interesting things I saw and learned along the way.

Not being able to ask for help and getting feedback was difficult. But what hurt the most was I felt I’d betrayed my community: I was having an amazing adventure, one I wanted to share and believed others could learn from, and I had to keep it a secret.

Why all the secrecy, anyway?

I didn’t share my job search with my community for personal reasons. I didn’t want to tell anyone in case I didn’t get it. Now that I have a fantastic position to go to, I’ll admit it’s not the first job I’ve pursued since joining UC San Diego 4 years ago. Those failed job applications are now water under the bridge (and I’m very grateful to my current Director who encouraged me to apply and learn from the experiences, regardless of the outcome.)

I didn’t share my searches with my community for professional reasons, too. “Why is he leaving? What’s wrong with his current job? Is it him or the people there? If he’s unhappy, can he still do his job?” I don’t need people asking those questions.

The moment of relief

After months of secrecy, there was an unforgettable moment of relief when I could finally reveal my news to my community:

The anxiety was washed away by the flood of replies – I’m so grateful to my communities.

Why now?

It turns out, some colleagues have gone through the same thing recently.

[I’ll add some examples here when I get their permission]

Perhaps this “suspending your networked practice” is a thing, a new thing we wouldn’t have imagined 10 years ago. It’s uncomfortable and anxiety-inducing. Just like every other part of the job search! That feeling that you’re betraying your community? It’s silly. Ignore it. You have enough on your mind already. And no one that matters to you in your community would want you to waste any energy on it. We’ll be there when you have news to share. And we’ll be there if you don’t have news to share.

What about you? Did you share your job search process or wait until you had news? How did you feel when you finally let your community know?

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