Faculty can learn so much about teaching from each other. The challenge is finding ways to start and sustain conversations between faculty about teaching. This is the story of how journaling became the centerpiece of an unlikely but highly impactful teaching support group involving a math professor, a philosophy professor, and an exercise science professor.
The collaboration began when we all attended the 2013 Teaching Professor
Conference in New Orleans. Although we all teach at Fort Lewis College, a small, public liberal arts college in Colorado, we did not know each other well before attending the conference. In fact, even at the conference, we went to only a few sessions together. We did enjoy a couple of meals as a group and talked about what we were learning. What we had in common was that we all cared deeply about our teaching, and the conference made us want to continue working on teaching development activities.
We stayed in touch during the summer of 2013 and continued to toss around ideas that morphed into a reading group. We met regularly to discuss chapters in Parker Palmer's The Courage to Teach
. But it was in December that we came across an article from Faculty Focus
), “Faculty Respond to the Challenge: Write about Teaching and Learning for Nine Weeks Straight.” A few weeks later, our dean sent an email requesting proposals for college-funded teaching enrichment activities. We put those two ideas together and decided to propose an endeavor similar to the one described in the Faculty Focus
article. We met to discuss the logistics and then submitted a proposal, and it was approved.
The article in Faculty Focus
described a project wherein faculty members wrote reflections about their teaching that they posted on the Web. We liked the idea of deliberate journaling but decided to share the journals only with each other. We felt safe sharing our reflections with each other but didn't feel entirely comfortable sharing them with all of humanity. We had built connections with each other and had also established some ground rules regarding trust and confidentiality during our reading group meetings.
We arranged for our Information Technology department to set up a secure drive, to which only we had access. During the semester we wrote reflections weekly and posted them on the drive. In-person meetings were scheduled about every three weeks. For our meetings, there was no set agenda; it was expected that we had read each other's reflections before we met.
We all struggled with finding (or making) the time to write our reflections. We agreed that we'd get the most out of the reflection process if we wrote soon after a class, but that didn't always happen. Back at our offices, we were frequently sidetracked by other issues. We all worked on keeping those issues at bay so we would have even five or 10 minutes to write a quick reflection right after a class.
The journaling turned out to be an excellent way to deepen our insights into what was working or not working in our classrooms. We were able to identify patterns of challenges as well as record and remember strategies that worked well and were worth repeating. However, this was more than a private journaling exercise. We were writing for an audience: trusted colleagues whom we could count on to read empathetically and offer helpful responses. Had we been posting our thoughts on the Web, we wouldn't have been able to be as candid. Writing for a few trusted colleagues was perfect. It became a mechanism for collective reflection on teaching.
Our in-person meetings were another highlight of this project. We did not feel that we had to “do homework” for these meetings. It was important to have read each other's reflections, but that didn't feel like work. Our meetings became special times when we could simply breathe, vent, listen, and offer support. We commented on each other's reflections, sometimes asked for more information or clarification, sometimes offered suggestions, but mostly listened and encouraged each other.
The benefits of this project were numerous. It served to strengthen connections between faculty members from quite different disciplines who normally would not have talked about teaching. We grew to respect each other as people and teachers. Especially heartening was the realization that though we were all deeply committed to student success, we all struggled to engage our students and positively impact their learning. We teach in very different areas, even so we still shared many of the same struggles and challenges as teachers. That enabled us to exchange strategies, ideas, and techniques. We learned from each other. The act of deliberately writing reflections was helpful, but receiving acceptance and support from colleagues was invaluable.
We highly recommend this activity to other teachers. We felt that writing weekly and meeting every three weeks worked well. We followed this routine for a semester but could certainly imagine doing it for a full academic year. The dynamics of our three-person group happened to be just right, but perhaps a group of four or even five would be better. Whatever the size, it is amazing what a small group of committed faculty can do to support each other's teaching!
Contact Pamela Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org