Why Secondary Teachers are the Most Qualified Adjunct Instructors

(Or my crusade against lecturing and other old-fashioned methods.)

These guided notes are so helpful!

I like that we do a lot of peer teaching.

I never knew about Google Hangouts or Remind until this class.

I’m glad we got to know each other before we did our speeches in front of the class.

He’s so boring! He just lectures!

We don’t get to do these types of activities in other classes.

These are all phrases students have said to me during the Spring 2017 semester as a community college adjunct instructor in Pennsylvania. Coming from a secondary public school background, I automatically assumed that most teachers at the college level already taught using different methods; the compliments almost sounded redundant. But if you remember your college experience, you’re likely to reflect on those introductory classes, stadium-seating style where the professor might get to know your name if you sat in the front row. Then s/he would often resort to ye-old-lecture model, since it was as familiar to him/her as when they sat in those same chairs.

The truth is, the only pedagogical class one might receive at this level is at a “big” school where T.A.s do most of the grunt work, aka 101-type classes. I remember taking a graduate course on how to teach Freshman Composition, but that, beyond a T.A. experience, is likely all that a community college instructor will receive. Once you end up earning that well-earned, yet expensive master’s degree, you’re primed to start teaching. After all, according to the college H.R. person, you’re the subject expert.

After surviving close to three years in Florida secondary schools, my husband and I were ready for a change before either of us got ulcers from the stress of public school teaching. We moved back to my husband’s hometown where I had previously taught English and public speaking classes at the local community college.

Around midterms, I encountered a post from Jennifer Gonzalez’s blog (“Cult of Pedagogy”) which introduced Dr. Norman Eng’s Teaching College: The Ultimate Guide to Lecturing, Presenting, and Engaging Students. Eng’s background is unique; he taught in public schools followed by a career as a marketing executive. Much like Eng, I discovered I still had a lot of public school methods that really worked — with a little tweaking, of course. Some “tricks of the trade” include:

Guided Notes

Guided notes are extremely useful, yet rarely used, by college instructors. Instead, it’s take notes and keep up with me, the educated one who holds the power of the gradebook. The problem is that many students have yet to master how to take notes. Guided notes are especially useful not only for students with accommodations (yes, a version of an IEP may still follow them after high school), but the whole class as well.

Student-Centered Activities

Who has time for classroom activities? Any grade at any level. I just assumed that adjuncts and professors actually did this. Same goes for peer teaching, working in groups, or playing “games” disguised as learning. Unfortunately, lectures and Power Points were the two most dominant methods being used by established instructors. Peer teaching and group activities were such a novelty for my college students; they kept telling me how they wish other instructors could implement other activities instead of exclusively lecturing.

Customized Rubrics

Participation rubrics are not just for the K-12 world. Since today’s high school graduates are likely to suffer from too much testing and too little group dynamic skills, their social-emotional learning may have faltered. Hold them accountable with a rubric and make it enough of a grade to really impact their learning. Yes, I gave a lot of “tough love” to my College Writing students and their essays, but they did improve. I know rubrics are slowly making their way into community colleges, but what I noticed is that they were very generic and not tailored to the particular assignment. My Effective Speaking students used to think I was too strict with grading their speeches from a rubric — until I got each student to individually sit next to me and grade another classmate. Not only did that experience make them pay attention to each part of the rubric, but they also understood my point of view. Some even understood I wasn’t trying to be strict; I just expected them to practice the assigned type of speech and perform it at an introductory college-level class.

Learner-Centered Technology Tools

Technology continues to fascinate students, yet many adjuncts still do not feel comfortable teaching the digital generation. I was also amazed at how little students knew about Google Hangouts (with which I was able to hold 2 classes during the Blizzard of 2017!) or Remind.com (since some millennials consider email to be old-fashioned). These millennial texting wizards may type faster than you, but there are tons of different teaching platforms that no one has used to present material. My College Writing students and I both noticed a big improvement in classroom dynamics after talking through Google Hangouts. According to Eng, this is an example of creating a meaningful experience. I may have taken more time out of my (snow) day holding office hours and writing conferences, but it helped cultivate student relationships that were lacking before.

Tough Love

Just because they’re legally old enough to vote (or drink), does not mean they have learned how to “adult.” That magic button might be saved for you to help turn on when you have a class full of older adults that might not have seen a classroom in 20 years. I remember still feeling shocked at newly-minted freshmen coming out of high school a little too coddled. Classroom management still holds some power, even at the community college level. Equally powerful is your right to say “no” for them to submit the assignment due weeks ago. Having higher expectations at the college level is more than acceptable.

Relationships

Relationships are key. Those “getting to know you” activities on any first day of school does not mean you need to stop once they graduate high school. Eng encourages questionnaires the first day of class to “market” a customized learning experience for his students. My public speaking students mentioned how much they appreciated both questionnaires and activities; they mentioned how they felt like they “knew” members of the class. For them, it made a nerve-wracking speech feel a little bit easier with peer support.

Recycling

Your high school classroom lessons can be recycled. Yes, students are older and should be treated as such, but those “go-to” lessons that seemed so magical in high school still work just as well, particularly if it’s an adult student who might need a new way of learning an old concept. Since I teach English and the concept of the argumentative paper will never go away, I often reuse the good old ethos/pathos/logos and logical fallacies plans I’ve had for years. You might feel they’re old lessons, but it’s probably the first time your college students have seen this “new” format you’ve presented, and they’ll probably thank you for it.

Melissa Shaffer taught College Writing, Fine Arts Survey, and Introduction to Effective Speaking during the Spring 2017 semester at a local Pennsylvania community college. She is a certified English (grades 6–12) educator and freelance writer. Her articles have appeared in AboutNewEngland.com, The Wayne Independent, and Matador. Her website, TeachersTravelling.com, will highlight culture, travel, and expat adventures with her husband and three pets.