The Value of Professional Development

 

The Value of Having a Break From Day-to-Day Duties

A few years ago, maybe 2010 or so, our community was invited to read the book, Drive, by Daniel Pink. One theme in that book was the idea that people are more likely to be productive and loyal to an organization if they feel cared for. Money was a factor, but only up to a certain point. It seems that once a person has “enough” salary to support themselves and their family, he or she becomes more interested in non-monetary benefits. I remember one of the examples being a company that designated certain Friday afternoons as “free time.” The employees were free to set their normal workload aside and work on a project of their own devising. This turned out to be an incredibly creative time for many of the employees and the company reaped the benefits of increased loyalty (less turn-over) and innovation. I think that professional development leave provides similar opportunities. If you tell me that for one year I can set aside my normal duties and focus on anything that I think will benefit the college, you are likely to get a great deal out of me—not the least of which will be my appreciation and gratitude to the institution.

The Value of Taking Classes That You’ve Taken Before

Careers that require professional licenses often require continuing education. Appraisers, for example, are required to complete a certain number of units (~20) every 3 years in order to maintain their license. While the candidate is free to select most of the units, two classes must be taken EVERY THREE YEARS. One pertains to legal requirements (which have the potential to change over time) and one pertains to ethics (which, I think, does not really change over time). My point is that in that profession, candidates MUST retake courses that they’ve studied in the past, just to be allowed to continue in that profession. It surprises me, therefore, that in applying for professional development leave, I came in contact with the idea that retaking classes would not likely benefit the college, except in special cases. Playing devil’s advocate, I think, “There are bound to be appraisers who agree, who think that retaking those classes every three years is stupid and adds no value to their qualifications.” But I also think:

  • Retaking coursework can remind you of knowledge and skills that have atrophied over the years.
  • Retaking coursework as a more mature adult can develop a deeper understanding than was possible to achieve during the college years.
  • Retaking coursework after teaching can allow you to study from the perspective of teacher rather than student.

The Value of Taking Classes That You Actually Teach, Yourself

I’ve been thinking, also, about whether it could be valuable for a teacher to take classes that they actually teach themselves. I’m thinking at this point that it could be very valuable.

  • Last spring, I sat in a colleague’s algebra class for an entire quarter—for a total of about 45 hours—because I felt that it was going to be beneficial as I prepared to work with a new population of students. I got no professional development credit for this, but it was profoundly beneficial.
  • If I were a student in a class that I normally teach, I would get more honest information about how students interface with the material.
  • If I were a student in a class that I normally teach, I would get to see how another teacher prioritizes, structures, and supports student learning.
  • If I were a student (in any course), I would be able to feel what it’s like to be in that role again.

 

Can you add to these lists? Have you found or can you imagine additional benefits of taking coursework that you’ve either taken before or is similar to what you teach?

Pieces of a Puzzle

While the college consists of many individuals, it also consists of groups: students, faculty, staff, administrators. There can be value in classifying individuals into groups such as these, because presumably, members of each group would share certain roles. But there can also be danger. Because when we do this sort of classification, we risk seeing each group as separate from and possibly at odds with the others. I believe that every member of our community came to the college in hopes of a richer, more purposeful life. For employees, that may be good pay, a nice working environment, and the opportunity to make a difference in the world by supporting the development of young people as they become the future of our country. For students, that hope may be for a better paying job or a dream career or it may be more elusive…they’re not sure what they want, or why they’re here, but there is some vague promise of transformation that they don’t want to miss out on.

Those hopes can likely be summarized as follows:

We all want meaningful work for which we are fairly compensated. And we all want to be successful in achieving the personal and professional goals that we set for ourselves. And in these endeavors, all members of our community are inextricably tied.

We are more alike than we are different. We are FAR more alike than we are different. But our labels sometimes obscure that. Can we agree on this? Without compromising our individuality, can we agree that we are all part of something bigger and in a very profound way there are no sides, but rather, just interconnecting pieces that together make up the whole?

If we come at our conversations and our work from this perspective, then with practice, we can get good at talking about places where we are doing a good job and places where we are not doing a good job. And if we get good at talking about those things honestly and openly, then we can improve. And the conversation is about US as a system. And there is no THEM, because we are all part of the whole. And individually, we each have a role to play and we can explore what those individual roles might look like.   And we can improve how we function together and that can reduce the friction that we experience—as students, faculty, staff, and administrators–when we work in isolation.

I want to have a conversation about roles. I want to have a conversation about vision. I want to have a conversation about communication. In this living system called Foothill College, I want our work to be guided by visions that inspire.

Roles: What are they and who decides?

What does it mean to be an administrator? A faculty member? A staff person? Are there themes to the roles played and the job done by members of each group? Are the roles well-defined? Faculty have “The Agreement.” Probably classified staff and administrators have similar types of documents. Do those documents clarify our roles? I’m thinking that in moments of conflict, we use those documents to make a decision. I’ve never read our agreement start to end. Mostly it’s a resource for me when a particular question comes up: “I’m going to a funeral and have to miss class; what do I need to do?” I don’t think that valued resource really provides a vision for my role in the college. Is it meant to? Does anyone think that it does?

I was 20 when I first started dating my husband. It was in interacting with his family that I became aware of many of my own assumptions. They were good people, but their roles, their rules, their habits were so different from those of my own family. Through years of conversations and actions, we came to know each other. And that process made me recognize that we experience every situation through the lens of our own assumptions, the net sum of all of our experiences to date. So what happens when 20 or 50 individuals work together in a department? Through years of conversations and actions, we come to know each other. And when we feel like we know each other and we feel like we each have a role that is understood and generally appreciated, then we can function well as a system.

A colleague recently observed that short-comings in a system end up costing the users time, energy, and morale. And as we put our collective attention towards Equity in Education, it is not much of a leap to conclude that short-comings in how we function as a college will disproportionately impact the poor, especially if they have to work while they’re going to school or if they are first-generation to college students. On the other hand, if we function well together, the benefits extend to EVERY student and also to ourselves.

So here are my numerous questions: Beyond the work that I do in my classroom, what is my role in our college? What is the role of various staff people? What is the role of a dean? What is the role of a Vice President? What is the role of the President? Who decides what our college-wide vision is going to be? How do we get buy-in for that vision? How do we talk about and share that vision in a way that makes us more likely to experience success in realizing it? How do we learn what the functioning parts of our system are? How do we connect system-wide to integrate the subsystems? And how do we improve how we function, as a SYSTEM? So many questions… Can you point me in a useful direction? Or share what you know?

Transformation: Creating A Shared Vision

When we communicate face-to-face, we get constant feedback via body language, facial expressions, gestures, and spoken word. So in real time, we adjust to that feedback. We change our tone, we change our body language, we change how we are speaking. It doesn’t require formal collection of data or justification or time. It happens automatically because it is part of how we are programmed as human beings. Much the same happens as we teach a course. We get feedback from students all the time. In class and during office hours, we can sometimes get information from body language and facial expressions. Even more powerful is the information that is entangled in student work and student questions. A certain mistake or a certain question provides a window into student thinking and that provides us with good information about our teaching: where we are and what we need to follow up on. It doesn’t require formal collection of data or justification or time. It happens automatically as we lead discussions, observe students working collaboratively, and work with students during office hours. We make small, marginal changes as we grow in our own understanding of how our teaching impacts student learning. And then, one day, after making numerous marginal changes, a type of transformation occurs and we realize that we now can see our teaching and student learning from a profoundly different perspective. And that perspective makes us more effective than we were previously. And those transformations are worth sharing. Because when we exchange ideas, we immerse ourselves in something akin to primordial stew, exposing ourselves and each other to all of the conditions from which new life can burst forth.   So please, once you hear about my latest transformation, consider sharing one of yours.

For me, the most profound transformation that I’ve experienced in the last year is the realization of how powerful a vision can be, when shared with the people around you.   Students want for college to be a transformative experience. They want to leave with the skills and the knowledge to be successful on the next stage of their personal and professional journey. We want the same thing for those students. But it was not until 5 years ago that I started talking with my students about that shared vision. And in the beginning, I wasn’t very good at talking about it. It was awkward. I was experienced and skilled at talking about topics, but outcomes were something mysterious, something beyond my control. Well, that was my reality 5 years ago. That is not my reality today. Today, I focus all of my planning on outcomes. The topics are the backdrop, the context in which students develop their critical thinking, quantitative reasoning, communication, and collaboration skills. And not a single week goes by without me reminding the students of this fact. I remind them that they are working hard because they want to be stronger thinkers, because they want to be able to understand what they hear in the media, because they want to grow their communication skills and because they want to have experience and skill working with other people. I remind them that they want to develop all of those skills so they can make better decisions, have a richer life, and develop the career that they want. It is no longer awkward. Sharing this vision puts us on the same side. I am no longer judge; I am a guide, hired to help them get to where they want to be. This has been transformative!

Placement and Assessment

 

I have been thinking a lot about placement and assessment. So many questions fly through my mind:

Who belongs in my class? What can I assume about the students who ARE in my class? What effect do my assumptions have on my students? What effect do my assumptions have on my teaching? What should I do if I discover that I’ve made an assumption that isn’t true? These are just a smattering of the questions I’ve been asking myself this last year. My opinions and answers are still in development. I’ll share where I’m at right now.

  1. Trained in logic and proof, I understand that conclusions are unreliable if the corresponding assumptions are not met. So while I have to make some assumptions in my teaching, I know that I absolutely should not base my work on any assumptions that I know to be false. For example: There is so much that we learn and forget! If I know that many of my students will be ill prepared to recall the background knowledge needed for a new topic, then I had better not assume that they will be ready with that background knowledge. I don’t have to teach them it, but if that bit of knowledge is on my wish list of what they’re good at, I think they’ll be more successful if I give them an exercise that reminds them of that stuff that they learned once and need to recall now.
  2. I used to think that some students did not belong in my class. I used to think that something went awry in some cases. “How could that person POSSIBLY have made it through all the other classes and yet still be so ill-prepared to succeed in my class?!” I even used to try to figure out what had gone wrong. But now, I know that it really doesn’t matter. And I believe that every student in my class belongs there. Some will find it easier to succeed and some will find it harder to succeed. But if they’ve placed into my class or if they’ve taken classes that serve as prerequisites for my class, then they do have the mathematical background to tackle the ideas in my class. For example: Many calculus students entering my Math 1C class still struggle with the difference between power functions and exponential functions, topics from algebra and precalculus. I used to think that one solution was to send them back to an earlier class. Now I think that that might be the worst thing in the world for them. They are intellectually ready for Math 1C, and their understanding of power and exponential functions will deepen with the kind of work we do together. But the moment I assume that they understand those functions as well as I do, I am bound to create activities that are not helpful, except to the lucky few who remember more than their peers.
  3. No one would ever look at a group of students and tell them that they should remember everything they’ve ever learned. But I have been repeatedly guilty of believing just that. Whenever it suited my needs, I would think “they should remember how to do this; they learned it in algebra!” I’m speaking in the past tense because I hope that I never do that again. Now I tell my students, “you can’t possibly remember everything you’ve ever learned. But when you find that you need a skill that you’ve forgotten, well, that’s the time to relearn it or remind yourself of what you used to know. And if there’s something that you need and you never learned it before, that’s OK too. There are lots of resources; and your teachers will always be happy to help you out if you run into trouble along the way.”
  4. There are two experiments that I am dying to play with.
    1. I’d love to take a group of students who pass a class and give them a final exam a second and third time, maybe one month after they pass and again one year after they pass. I’m really curious to know how they’d do.
    2. What would happen if I tried to complete an exam from a class that I haven’t taught in 1 year, 3 years, 5 years, ever? I think it’s safe to predict that I would not do well in some cases, depending on the class, the style of the exam, and the length of time since I thought of anything related to it. And what conclusions would be reasonable? I am thinking of this because of the conclusions we draw from placement exams. Are they reasonable? A student who just completed a course in differential equations could expect to outperform me on a differential equations exam (unless I prepared myself in advance). Does that make them more qualified than me to teach differential equations next fall? Of course not! I think we need to think of these scenarios when we’re working on placement mechanisms for students.

 

I don’t know how to end this, because the ideas are still bouncing around in my head. But thank you for listening to a first attempt to get some of them on paper.   You know, they say that the act of writing helps you to form the ideas…

Reflections on a Changing World

I like to reflect on how the world has changed. It reminds me that my understanding and assumptions about the world are often based on outdated information. Much like Euler’s method, it provides me with the opportunity to reassess and adjust, hopefully for a better outcome.

When I was a student, there was no email. In the semester system, I had 3 hours per week with my instructors. They could not intrude upon my time, except during those 3 hours. There were no email reminders or last minute requests to prepare something for class. If I didn’t ask my questions during class or email, I was out of luck. Today, students can send a question via email any time of day or night. But they don’t send many. I, too, can send them emails, if I have an idea of something that might help them prepare. We had a long weekend this quarter. And there were no emails passed. I thought the students were as reluctant as I was to check their email during that beautiful, warm weekend.
When I was a student, there was just me and my textbook. There was no internet. My instructors certainly did not expect me to go beyond my textbook to research the topic (unless they assigned a research paper). Today, there is Google. With a few strokes on the keyboard, a student can find videos and tutorials on any math topic I teach. This allows students to hand-pick the resources they most like.   That might increase student success, especially when a student needs to refresh their skills with a prerequisite topic. How has our teaching changed? Do we expect more of students, knowing that they have this resource? Do we expect more or less of ourselves?
When I was a student, graphing calculators were just coming into existence. No one that I knew had one. We did all of our work analytically. Well, once I took a class in which we wrote programs to carry out numerical methods, but that was a special and unusual class. Today, I expect my students to be proficient at analytical techniques. But I also expect them to develop a better intuition, based on the types of questions that they can answer using a graphing calculator. I expect that they can use their calculator as a tool. The calculator makes some tasks easier. It makes the mathematical experience richer than mine generally were. Do I expect more or less of my students than my teachers expected of me?
When I was a student, there were no online homework systems or ebooks. But teachers oftentimes recommended that we buy the “Student Solutions Manual” or the “Study Guide” to accompany the text. We had to carry our texts around with us. We didn’t have tablets or online access. Today, students can use an ebook and access their text using a tablet or computer. But they may have to use several different Learning/Course Management Systems in a given quarter. Here are some that I’ve had my students use: Course Studio, Etudes, Webassign, MyMathLab, CourseStudio, WileyPlus.   Colleagues in my department have used Aleks and Blackboard and others as well. Again, students have more ready access with these, but mightn’t they distract the students from the learning at hand? And if the medium is hard to figure out or behaves unpredictably, then to what extent does it become a barrier to learning?  Do these systems save time?  Or do they take time?
When I was a student, my life was pretty simple. Each day, I woke up, ate breakfast, and went to school. Between classes, I worked on homework. My parents provided me with food and shelter and a car. There was no need for me to contribute funds to the household. I had a little job to pay for gas and entertainment. Later, my jobs got bigger, which got in the way of school. I found that I had to work fewer hours to stay successful in school. To what extent do my students have a simple, secure life? Does their family provide them with food and shelter? Or do they have to contribute funds to the family household?   Do they have a job that’s manageable?   Or does it get in the way of their school success?
When I was a student, I had about 10 hours worth of television programing that I hoped to watch each week. Today there seems to be an unlimited supply of entertainment, accessible at any time via a computer or smartphone. How does this impact a student’s studies?

 

What would it be like to be a student today? Perhaps a professional development leave could answer that question. What would it be like to be an 18 – 20 year old student today? I don’t really know of a way to answer that question. Any thoughts?

Our Core Values: Honesty • Integrity • Trust • Openness • Transparency • Forgiveness • Sustainability

Honesty

I admire the student who turns in partially complete work, with a note telling me that it’s not complete, that he wanted to do more, but that it was all he had been able to pull off in the end. I admire the student who writes on her exam that her answer is wrong but that she has been unable to find her mistake. I admire the colleague who shares his assumptions, his choices, his motivations. I admire the colleague who tells me how they’d do things differently than I have.

My pledge: I will strive to speak the truth compassionately.

Integrity

I admire my online students who help me to maintain the integrity of the online format—the ones who remind their peers that discussion of the quiz should wait until after it has closed. I admire my colleagues who do what they believe in—even though it leads them to make different choices than I would make.

My pledge: I will seek out the best in my colleagues and students. I will strive to identify their successes.

Trust

I admire the student who trusts that I have his best interest at heart. I trust that my colleagues and dean wish all the best for me, as I wish all the best for them. I trust in my belief that when a person is well cared for, they make the world a better place.

My pledge: I will trust that my colleagues and my students are doing the best that they can and that they know that I am too.

Openness

I admire the student who comes to class, open to whatever new experience or approach she encounters. I admire the colleague who does the same…the colleague who listens and reflects and considers before deciding whether they like a new idea.

My pledge: I will strive to be open with my students and my colleagues as well as to the changes that happen with time and place.

Transparency

I admire the student who can discuss his progress transparently: “I’m completing all of the exercises, but not the activities, because I have limited time and I seem to get more from the exercises.” I admire the colleague who is transparent with her motivations: “I wasn’t getting enough sleep last quarter, so I decided to give credit for participation rather than grade the quizzes.”

My pledge: I will strive to be transparent; and if I fail, then I ask that you give me another chance by asking for clarification.

Forgiveness

I admire the student who can forgive herself, because then she won’t be held back by guilt. She will forgive me and her peers when we have a bad day and she won’t use us as an excuse to give up learning. For all these same reasons, I admire the colleague who forgives himself and his colleagues for their imperfections.

My pledge: I will give my students many opportunities to show what they understand and what they can do. My grading plan will allow them to recover easily from a bad day or from a previous misconception. I will forgive myself and my colleagues for our bad days as well.

Sustainability

I admire the student who practices finding balance in their life, engaging in practices that can be sustained throughout the quarter, the year, their education, their life. I admire the colleague who tries for the same.

My pledge: I will strive for a balanced life and I will encourage that in my students and in my colleagues.

Trying Something New

Trying Something New

I know the math that I teach. I know how to explain the concepts and I know how to explain the mechanics. I am not as good at explaining the applications. That is something to continue to work on. But if I can explain the concepts and the mechanics, why aren’t my students universally more successful than they are, at least with those parts of the class? I think that the students’ ability to manage their workload is a big part of the problem and I think that I am not completely successful in setting the tone that I want to.

Here I’ll share my latest attempt to address these issues and then I’ll ask you to share what you do!

Before this quarter started, I sat down with my favorite course and typed up a page of directions for every day of the quarter. Each page was to be used as a cover sheet and the work listed therein was to be submitted at the next class meeting. I decided to purchase a binder and binder dividers for every one of my students, in an attempt to set the tone of high expectations and high commitment. It cost me about $2.25 per student. I didn’t have time to assemble the binders, so I just took in all of the components on the first day of class and wrote directions on the board for the students to follow to assemble their binder. They were very appreciative. When they left class on Day 1, every student had a checklist of exactly what they needed to do each day of the quarter…organized in a binder. And almost every one of them is turning that work in each day! Since I believe that workload management is one of the greatest obstacles to success in the calculus classes, I am hopeful that this daily submission of work will translate into an increased success rate and better grades in general.

The world has changed a lot since I was a student. As in the past, students are oftentimes taking 3-5 classes.  Only now, students might have 3 or 4 resources to access per class! With such complexity, it can be quite difficult for a student to keep track of exactly what they need to be doing each day. Just as our workload (and the complexity of our job) has increased with the advent of email, SLO’s, increasing numbers of committees, and online resources, so has the workload and the complexity of student life increased. It may be mutually beneficial for us to simplify our own lives and the lives of our students by providing this kind of resource at the outset of each quarter. Then we could all focus on the more important tasks of teaching and learning.

Imagine if we could increase success rates by investing a few dollars per student! Wouldn’t that be amazing!

Now it’s your turn. Tell me something that you’re excited about or something that you use to great effect, even if it no longer excites you…

Mind-blown

In Fall 2014, something happened that changed me: as a teacher, as a parent, as a person. That fall, I had numerous Middle College (high school) students in my trigonometry classes. They were delightful and I enjoyed them immensely. But the experience absolutely blew my mind.

As a graduate student, I got my first teaching assignment at age 23. That was at San Francisco State University, where the average student was in their 20’s and where many of my students had put off their math requirement until the end of their education. So most of my students were about my age and many were older. So I always saw them as young adults. At age 26, I started teaching at Foothill College. I noticed that the students were a bit younger, but I really thought nothing of it.

Fast forward 18 years. My daughter is almost 15. My son is 11. I have numerous “other children,” kids who I’ve known and cared for over the years. I’ve known a few of them since birth, many since preschool or kindergarten. They are the children who grew up with my kids. I love them. I love their families. And I realize that my daughter and her peers, freshmen in high school, are just 2 years younger than these Middle College students in my class. Like shifting tectonic plates, my mind is completely blown.

At that moment, I realize that my students are very, very young. This is a shift, not in circumstance, but in perspective. I never saw my students as young or inexperienced. I saw them only as adults, as students. But at that moment, I see them through the lens of my experiences of the last 15 years. I see them as I see my children and all of my children’s friends. And I realize that they are not that far removed from childhood. And all the hope and care and concern I have for the children in my life is extended to my students–instantaneously, at the moment of realization.

And in that moment, something starts nagging at the edges of my mind. I can’t see it, but I feel it. It takes longer, perhaps days or weeks to come into focus. And then, for a moment, I see it. My 15 year old is not that far removed from adulthood. And for a moment, all of the worries and fears that try to creep into a mother’s heart are exiled and I experience a profound sense of peace. And that place is in my heart now, and I know how to find it when I need to.

And I feel a confidence about my students that I never felt before. I see them as works in progress, as young people trying to figure out who they want to be and how they want to be. I see their families, in my mind’s eye, hopeful, anxious, proud, forgiving, loving. And although I know that these young people are adults, I no longer expect that they will have everything figured out. And when they make mistakes or when they seem a little lost, I figure the best I can do for them is show them a little kindness, like the many people who have shown me kindness, especially in my youth.

Modeling My Values

About three years ago, I discarded the mind-numbing, unproductive practice of taking roll. And on the first class of every quarter, I do something exciting instead. As students enter the room or work on a task that I’ve assigned, I MEET them. I look them in the eye and smile and shake their hand and tell them that my name is Jennifer. If they don’t tell me their name, I ask them for it. I welcome them and I make a note on my roll sheet that I met them. I hear their name, I see how it’s spelled, and I write down a phonetic spelling or a preferred name if they share one. It takes a long time and it is worth every minute. I always give them a task to complete so they’re not bored. I pause at times and try to recall the names and faces of several students who I’ve met so far. I start the process of learning their names. And because it is challenging, it is fun and exciting. And I share that with them. And I let them witness my struggle, my effort, my failures. And I use it as a metaphor for the learning that they will engage in all quarter long and beyond.

Except for a few of you, I did not know your names before I met you today. But look, I think that I can remember a few that I’ve learned this morning. [And I smile at a few people and confirm their names.] I will continue to work hard to learn your names, and within a week or two I will know them all. And you will have to put your mind to learning many things this quarter. But because you focus on it and make a point to learn it, you will, just as I will learn your names because I make a point to.

Over the next several days I take several opportunities to practice their names, usually by collecting and returning papers, and almost never by calling out 35 names in quick succession. They appreciate my efforts and I let them know that I appreciate their efforts too. They see that I forgive myself when I make mistakes and that I keep trying. After a few days, I know everyone’s names and I show off by going through the room and calling out each person’s name and they are delighted. I tell them that learning is tenuous; although I know all of their names right at that moment, I will surely forget some over the weekend. I tell them that they have surely forgotten some of the math they will need for this class. That’s natural…there’s nothing to be done about it except learn it again when they need it. I promise to point out along the way things that they’ll need to recall or relearn.

And on Friday of Week 1, I leave class, content that I am communicating that I very much value sustained effort, forgiveness, and resilience in the face of set-backs.

It makes me very happy.