A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives. ~ Jackie Robinson
I’ve worked in higher education for over 30 years, I’ve been a dean for nearly 20. I think the single most important way to measure the success of a faculty, staff member or administrators is the positive impact that they have on the education and success of students.
In terms of the classroom the modality is irrelevant, it’s about the impact. I’ve seen incredible teachers who make a tremendous impact teaching in person, and I’ve seen incredible online teachers. What is far more important than modality, is what you do for students. Whether you are in person or online, how do you truly reach students? And we’re not just talking about content. As a former biology instructor and STEM dean, I can tell you that often STEM faculty get far too focused on the importance of the material. This is not surprising, more than in other disciplines, STEM courses have a tendency to truly build upon each other. You have to understand general chemistry to do well in biochemistry. It also helps to have done well in general biology. Second semester calculus builds off of first semester calculus, and physics and engineering courses build off of both. A quick look through most college catalogs will show the high number of pre-requisites in most STEM course sequences. Recently, colleges have started to acknowledge this by looking at hidden pre-requisites. A lot of STEM majors, particularly Engineering pathways, list the core courses in the major, but often fail to mention the pre-requisites to these courses meaning that the total number of units is much higher than the catalog shows.
So it makes sense that instructors in those areas are significantly focused on making sure students have the information needed to be successful in the next level course. And doing that, in any discipline, makes them an average instructor. What makes a truly special teacher is impact. That impact can occur in a number of ways. It can occur in the classroom (in person or online) in that a teacher may make impact by presenting material and structuring their class in such away that the truly generate interest, excitement and this helps student success and retention. There is a second way that instructors can create impact that in fact, I believe is even more important, and this in the student’s life.
I primarily taught non-majors biology when I taught, and I would say that first I was a teacher, and secondly I taught biology. What I have always felt was most important was the impact we could make on students. Could we ignite a passion for learning, could we get them to reconsider a pathway they were on, could we get them to reconsider the world around them? And even more importantly could we be there for students in ways that we never expected. During my career I’ve had students who were trying to get out of bad family situations, students who were suicidal, had substance abuse problems, unfortunately I even had students who admitted to me they had been sexually assaulted.
The true success as an educator, whether you are a faculty member, staff member or administrator is how you help those students outside of the normal framework of educational expectation. Yes, in the classroom you need to do a good job of imparting content. Yes, staff members need to do a good job of supporting students and staff in their area to help make classes high quality learning environments. And yes, administrators need to push paper, manage budgets and personnel and deal with all of the politics necessary to make sure the resources are available for the faculty and staff to accomplish their responsibilities. But it’s the those other opportunities where we truly make a difference.
It’s amazing how many small opportunities you get every day in education to change someone’s life. That student who looks lost and confused who you ask, “can I help you?” The student who comes to you asking for help, whether it’s to learn the material or to deal with a non-communicative instructor, or whether it’s who to speak to in order to find out about financial aid. That question in class of how are you today?
These small instances, at least that seem small to us, can often open the door to significant good in a student’s life. I’m going to relay three such instances that have occurred during my career.
Student number 1 was a student in my non-majors biology class while teaching in the southeastern part of the United States. When we hit the evolution portion of the course, the student came to see me after class. He was distressed that we were talking about it as it was contrary to his beliefs. But he had mentioned to me that he earned money cutting and selling wood for fireplaces. I asked him if it was true that the number of tree rings was an accurate way to age a tree? He said yes and then I talked to him about Methuselah, a bristlecone pine tree that is nearly 5,000 years old. According to his beliefs, the great flood that covered all but the highest mountains happened 4500 years ago. So I asked him a simple question, how did a tree that lives in harsh and dry desert environments survive being submerged in the flood? The question perplexed him and he said he’d look into in and get back to me. The last week of class, almost two months later, the student asked if he could meet me in my office. We did and he came in with a giant binder. He looked at me and said, “everyone is lying to me.” He had come to question his faith even to his belief in the existence of God. I dialed him back. We discussed the fallibility of men, the difficulty of proving a deity and the fact that there are many religious scientists. What I brought him around to, was what I thought was the more important point. That what science teaches us, is to question the world and to draw our answers from facts and reason. This doesn’t mean faith has no place in the world, but it needs to be recognized for what it is, belief, not fact. We would go on to have many good conversations over time and I believe that our interaction had a positive long-term impact on his life.
Student number 2 is a student who I’m incredibly proud of, we met in her first semester at the University of Tennessee. She was a student in my first year experience course and also one of my academic advisees. She was a bit of a party girl and was quickly on probation. We talked a lot about this, I myself had failed out of college after becoming an alcoholic and addict and so I understood where she was at. Over the next couple of semesters she really got her act together and was doing well. In her fourth semester she came to meet with me and she was failing all of her classes. It didn’t make any sense given how well she’d been doing. I asked her what was going on? She completely broke down crying, after a couple of minutes she admitted that she’d been date raped. She hadn’t told anyone, she was ashamed, blaming herself and it had fully detonated her life. I walked her down to our women’s center, sat with her through her first crisis counseling appointment and supported her through the process of healing that she had to undertake. One of my happiest moments in education was the day her and her mother saw me at graduation. Her mom threw her arms around me and thanked me for what I had done, they invited me to dinner with them that night. This young women had graduated with good grades, was accepted to grad school and on her way. It was all about the work she did, the steps she took, but that single question of, “what’s going on?” was the gateway for me to make an impact in this student’s life.
The third student I want to talk about, I talk about to illustrate that sometimes we make an impact in ways we can never imagine. I had a student in my non-majors biology class who was a terrible student. They were unfocused, lazy and really made no effort to be successful. So they failed the class. They immediately accused me of being biased because they were religious and didn’t believe in evolution, because she was a woman and because she was black and so I needed to give her a passing grade. I refused and the normal process started. She demanded that the woman in charge of our department be allowed to regrade all of her papers and exams and I agreed. That review actually resulted in a lower grade than I had given her. She was angry and that felt like the end of the process.
About two years later I was leaving my office in the advising center after closing. It was about 7PM on a Monday night, the building was basically empty. The hallway was not particularly well-lit and I hear my name. I turned and their she was, my former student, “I need to talk to you.” I was truly terrified, I was afraid, there, alone in the hallway and I started envisioning all kinds of horrible scenarios. I could see her claiming something happened that didn’t and so I quickly walked past her heading for the stairwell in that building. The stairwells were well lit and there was a lot of glass and a better chance of people walking by. I was almost there when she grabbed my shoulder and said, “please, stop.”
I turned to her and she said, “I need to talk to you.” What then proceeded to happen completely shocked me. She thanked me for failing her in my class. She said that it had been a huge wake-up call, that I was the first person to ever, “call her on her shit.” She said that it had forced her to address reality and that in fact, she had completely changed her life. She was doing well in school, she was even working as a research assistant in the college’s social science research office. I admit, I kept thinking the whole time, what’s her angle, what game is she playing, how am I being set up? But I said, “you’re welcome” and moved on quickly.
A couple of months later as I was working on the survey for my dissertation project I reached out to the research office for some help and they assigned me a staff member to assist me, it was her. At the meeting where we were “introduced” we had a good laugh, she told the staff the story and ended up being a really helpful person on my project. I would have never thought failing that student could have had some positive impact.
There are two other things to say on the issue. First, we will often impact students in ways we never see and never know about. And secondly, we don’t always succeed. One of the worst days I’ve had in education was when a student I had been working with for two years came to me, to tell me he was quitting college. He had come from a very bad section of Memphis and told me that he was the first member of his family to go to college and to not work in the drug business. But then, his oldest brother got shot and his family made him return to Memphis, and into that business. He stayed in touch for a little while but then I lost touch and while I hope things went better than either of us expected, they likely did not.
This is our job in education, to support students, and help them and make a positive impact in their lives. There is an initiative called The Caring Campus Initiative. I’ve done the training and it’s a reminder of what I’m talking about in this piece. Since Vincent Tinto’s work in the late 1980’s we have been talking about the connection between college connection and student retention. The Caring Campus Initiative training reminds people of our mission as educators and shows them what the impact of their actions can be for students.
When we as educators interact with students and make that impact, we’re doing a lot, and there is retention and success data that supports this idea. So, when you have that opportunity, make that connection, create that impact, it’s what we’re here for. Whether it is in or out of the classroom makes no difference.