As an instructor who has studied teaching and learning in the fields of educational psychology, cultural studies of education, and instructional technology, I strive to enact the lessons I have learned from work with my students, colleagues, and research. Teaching and learning are relational processes that can be transformative for all parties involved when approached with a combination of structure and openness. Effective teaching and learning require engagement and reflection beyond the tangible requirements seen on a list of course objectives or a syllabus. In order for students to get the most out of the courses I teach, I bring them together through common experiences and give them time to reflect so that they can do more than simply apply the lessons they learn—they appropriate course content for their own goals with a sense of its value to them and their communities.
After 9 years of teaching in public and private schools at all levels, principally high school, I began my PhD studies with an assistantship to be the instructor of a senior- and master’s-level seminar in educational psychology with a typical enrollment of 20 students. I have taught this course every semester since the fall of 2011. As a high school teacher I was already aware of “brain-based” teaching, and through my doctoral coursework, I developed a teaching approach that was complemented by the coaching of my advisors and research in existential phenomenology. It is through the implementation of this instructional style that my class participation is often above 90%. With this level of engagement, students can experience diverse perspectives and engage in reflective practice.
The degree to which my students and I feel trust and safety with each other is key to achieving high class participation. I use my first meeting with students to get to know them beyond where they are from and what they plan to teach. I build connections to and among students through their interests and their goals, which I ask them to share with other students and me online before coursework even begins. I bring to the classroom a broad set of activities and techniques that are supported by the latest research to assist students in acquiring the skills needed for effective leadership and teaching, but without the fellowship I foster between and with students, these techniques can not lead to the authentic learning I strive to foster.
One of the ways I build connections is the use of a structure for discussion and assignments that values students and their experiences. I developed a meme, “Past, Present, Future,” that helps students meaningfully connect stories from their past, contemporary research in the field of education, and their future work as educators. In discussion, I challenge them to connect what they have seen to what we have read. In my “launch a world” activities, students engage in qualitative research and thought experiments within the classroom to develop class-wide theories of motivation, for example, that we compare and contrast with existing theories. These techniques create for the students a strong sense of togetherness and ownership.
Togetherness and ownership should translate beyond the time I spend with students. In order to more fully integrate my teaching and learning into the surrounding community, I find and utilize technology that can make course content more immediately applicable. I use the unique features of new technologies for the sake of advancement of teaching and learning rather than technology for the sake of novelty or trendiness.
In some cases, I use technology to connect the learning activities I design to the real world in which my students will work. In one particular lesson on culturally relevant pedagogy and socio-economic status, my students consult Knox County’s GIS database, a map-based online technology with census information, to get a bird’s eye view of where they will be teaching and in-depth knowledge of demographics of the surrounding neighborhoods. My students work in their placements to reflect on issues of social justice and together develop plans for how they will address their future students’ needs based on traditional theoretical readings, current news and events in the area, and Internet-based sources like the GIS database.
The availability of such a wide variety of on-line resources inspired the instructional team I work with to completely re-design the educational psychology course to a “flipped” classroom format in which we replaced the textbook with online learning modules that combine content of our creation with other academic and popular resources such as articles, videos, and mainstream media discussions of topics such as learning theories, assessment, development, and social justice issues. I took a major role in designing and writing many of the modules and the assessments that accompany them.
When students take courses online, there is a risk that their commitment and responsibility to classmates and the instructor can be eroded. To maintain my relational learning approach, I respond to common student concerns. For example, they worry about teaching in a multi-cultural world. Whether the students focus on racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, or ableism, I work with them to help understand ways to advocate for all students and use technology and alternate perspectives to help prepare them to advocate for themselves and the diverse student populations they will encounter in their careers.
Because of their worries over using data appropriately and “dealing with” parents, as they so often put it, I developed an authentic activity in which students role-play a parent-teacher conference in which they describe hypothetical student profiles and academic progress. Focusing on student concerns not only shows my students that I care about their futures, it helps my students move from the mindset of student to learner: they find a way to go beyond asking, “What do I need to do for this course?” to “What do I need to understand for my career and how can I use this course to help me?” This orientation helps students answer for themselves the question of how they will use course content in their lives.
Part of the transition I want to inspire in my students, no matter what the course content, involves a deeper understanding of research and its role in shaping practice. With the popularization of citizen science, research is more accessible than ever, and I make a point to show its value in the creation of actionable knowledge. In teaching and in research I show my students and participants what responsibility they have in the generation and use of knowledge. I have collaborated with a student on a conference paper and hope to continue such work in order to inspire my students to include experiential learning in their future classrooms.
Above all in my work as a teacher is placing an emphasis on the relationships and connections I develop with my students and that they develop with each other. Through building relational networks, my students learn together in a way that prepares them for the difficult work of educating a diverse populace in a democracy, which is a task that can never be fully successful without collaboration. I feel most successful when I see my students using their gifts in concert with their colleagues to make education a more engaging and powerful experience for their students and communities.
I am concerned that an instrumentalist approach that sees college as a checklist to fill out for a degree robs universities of their potential to guide students towards a greater integration into their world. In each field of study there is potential to speak to a part of the soul of the learner that the dominant culture ignores, and I want my practice as an instructor to promote the discovery of these unknown worlds that may be right under my students’ noses.