Reprinted with permission from:
Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 17:459-471, 1993.
HIDDEN CHARACTERISTICS OF EFFFCTIVE
COMMUNITY COLLEGE TEACHERS
Genesee Community College
This article explores faculty viewpoints, values, and behavior regarding faculty student interaction in and outside of the classroom.
The research is qualitative in nature, consisting of systematic observations of five effective community college faculty members interacting with students in the classroom, supplemented with open‑ended interviews of faculty.
The results of the study validate earlier research on effective college teaching and suggest additional “hidden characteristics" that help to explain why some professors are particularly effective. These characteristics are significant in that they have not been previously reported. Attention is shifted away from just looking at a teacher’s command of the subject, organizational skills, and rapport with students. Characteristics such as charisma and altruism also come into consideration, bringing forth the concept of teacher as messiah.
For these faculty, teaching is more than an occupation: it’s dedication to leave the world a better place, an opportunity to make a difference in another’s life, a chance to enhance one's own life.
* * * * * * * * * *
The purpose of this article is to add to the understanding of effective community college teaching by focusing on faculty‑student interaction. Specifically, this article explores faculty viewpoints, values, and behavior regarding faculty‑student interaction in and outside of the classroom; and discusses the viewpoints of effective community college faculty with respect to the meaning they derive from faculty‑student interaction.
The research was qualitative in nature consisting of systematic observations of five effective
community college faculty interacting with students in the classroom, supplemented with open-ended interviews of faculty.
A primary aim of this study was to understand effective community college teaching from the point of view of faculty who have distinguished themselves as good teachers. Rather than to test hypotheses, an objective of this study was to develop hypotheses concerning effective community college teaching and faculty-student interaction.
Many professional teachers and administrators in community colleges are concerned with the improvement of teaching. Dozens of books have been written about the improvement of undergraduate teaching in the last decade including the Determining Faculty Effectiveness (Centra, 1980); The Essence of Good Teaching (Ericksen, 1984); Mastering the Techniques of Teaching (Lowman, 1984); The Craft of Teaching (Eble, 1988); and Teaching as Leading (Baker, Roueche & Gillett-Karam, 1990). At the core of most criticism in higher education is the assertion that effective education requires close working relationships between faculty and students (Wilson, Gaff, Dienst, Wood, & Barry, 1975; Ellner & Barnes, 1983; Chickering & Gamson, 1987; Eble, 1988). Drawing on years of research, Chickering and Gamson (1987) pointed out that frequent faculty-student contact is the most important factor to student motivation and involvement. Mounting evidence suggests that frequent contact between faculty and students is the key to reducing student attrition (Miller, 1985; Chormin & Goldsmith, 1986), helps to improve students’ grades (Hudesman, Avramides, Loveday, Waber, & Wendell, 1983) and facilitates students’ academic and personal growth and satisfaction with their overall college experience (Pascarella, 980; Ender, Einston & Miller, 1984). Two points, however, are not clear. How do effective faculty members interact with students both in and outside the classroom, and what perspectives do faculty members have toward this interaction?
According to The Chronicle of Higher Education (1990), nearly half the students enrolled in higher education attend community colleges. The faculty at these colleges have significant teaching and advising responsibilities (Seidman, 1985; Baldridge, Curtis, Ecker, & Riley, 1978). Community colleges are often referred to as “teaching institutions” with a student-centered faculty (Baker, Roueche, & Gillett-Karam, 1990; Seidman, 1985). The notion of student-centeredness "permeates the community college” (Seidman, p. 86). Faculty members are believed to put teaching first and the discipline second (Vaughan, 1988). They have no significant research responsibility and spend most of their working time teaching, offering guidance, and holding office hours. Many community college faculty are concerned about the high number of students who drop out of their classes and programs. For years, community colleges have proclaimed themselves “open door” colleges, but it is clear that many community colleges have “revolving doors,” where students drop out as easily as they drop in (Vaughan, 1988). As few as 10% of community college students receive in associate's degree within two to five years of entering the school (Breneman & Nelson, 1985). Many students in community colleges are academically unprepared, deficient in basic academic skills (English, mathematics, reading), and unsure of long‑term career goals; and they often choose majors inappropriate for their abilities (Astin, 1976; Pantages & Creedon, 1978, Everitt, 1979; Rugg, 1982).
Some faculty stand out as particularly effective in the community college context in spite of these problems. The idea that effective teaching is a phenomenon found in the relationships between teachers and students merits further attention, especially in the community college where students are more diverse, often academically unprepared , and more likely to drop out.
EFFECTIVE TEACHERS: A REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE
One of the most widely respected and widely read authorities on the subject of college teaching is Kenneth Eble. In The Craft of Teaching, Eble (1988) claimed that research on the characteristics of effective teaching, dating from early in the century to the present, has arrived at
Most studies stress knowledge and organization of subject matter, skills in instruction, and personal qualities and attitudes useful to working withstudents. If personal characteristics are emphasized in a study, good teachers will be singled out as… enthusiastic, energetic, approachable, open, concerned, imaginative, [with a] sense of humor. If the mastering of a subject matter and good skills are emphasized, good teachers are masters of subject, can organize and emphasize, clarify, point out relationships, can motivate students, pose and elicit questions and are reasonable, imaginative and fair in managing the details of learning. (p. 21‑22)
Drawing from years of research on higher education, students, and faculty, Chickering and Gamson (1987, p. 2) proposed seven characteristics of the effective teacher: (a) encourages contact between students and faculty members; (b) develops reciprocity and cooperation among students; (c) uses active learning, techniques, having students talk and write about what they learn and relate it to their background and daily lives; (d) gives feedback promptly; (e) emphasizes time spent in class on particular tasks; (f) communicates high expectations; and (g) respects diverse talents and ways of learning.
Joseph Lowman, like Eble, offers a perspective on effective teaching. In Mastering the Techniques of Teaching (1984), Lowman identified two dimensions to the superb college teacher. Dimension one refers to an instructor’s ability to generate intellectual excitement in the classroom. Dimension two is an instructor’s positive interpersonal rapport with students. In Lowman’s words:
Superior college teaching involves two distinct sets of skills. The first is speaking ability. This includes skill not only in giving clear, intellectantly exciting lectures but also in leading discussions. The second is interpersonal skills. Such skill allows one to create the sort of warm, close relationships with one’s students that motivate them to work independently, (p. 2)
According to Lowman, superb teachers are outstanding in one of these sets of skills and at least competent in the other. “Exciting teaching,” wrote Lowman, “is not merely acting or entertaining.” (See also Kaplan, 1974; Meier & Feldhusen, 1979; Naftulin, Ware, & Donnelly, 1973; Perry, Abrami, & Leventhal, 1979; Williams & Ware, 1977; Eble, 1988.) Entertainment, argued Lowman, involves the stimulation of emotions and the creation of pleasure for their own sakes. Outstanding teaching is characterized by stimulation of emotions associated with intellectual activity; the excitement of considering ideas, understanding abstract concepts, and seeing their relevance to one’s life, and participating in the process of discovery.
EFFECTIVE COMMUNITY COLLEGE TEACHERS
Using a qualitative and quantitative research approach on the question of effective community college teaching, Baker, Roueche, and Grillett-Karam (1990) found that effective teachers influence the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of their students. According to the Baker group, good community college teachers are good leaders:
The teacher does not convey or impart content. Rather, the teacher instructs, motivates, influences and enables the student to require content from the teacher, the text or any other source; and as students become skilled at acquiring content, they learn. (p. 11)
The Baker study expanded on previous work done by Easton, et al. (1985). According to the Easton study, the effective community college teacher: (a) plans and organizes goals, (b) shows respect and interest in students, (c) encourages student participation, and (d) monitors student progress and responds accordingly.
Studies on effective college teaching have consistently arrived at similar conclusions; however, little has been done with respect to the meanings effective community college teachers take from their interaction with students.
The faculty who participated in this study represented the best teachers at a particular public New England community college, as measured by student evaluations over a 5‑year period and by nominations from the Dean of Academic Affairs and each faculty member's immediate supervisor.
The methods used in this study were based on an interpretive perspective with data generated by means of participant observation and in‑depth interviewing. This approach can uncover idiosyncratic but nonetheless important stories about people (Grant, Barnes, & Smith, 1983). Slice-of-life episodes are documented through natural language. representing as closely as possible what people think, how they feel, what they know, and how they know it. According to Rist (1979), this method assumes that a more complete analysis "can be achieved by actively participating in the life of the observed and gaining insights by means of introspection" (p. 44).
In summary, this perspective considers the construction of reality to be a normal activity by
which people tease meaning out of the world, make sense out of it, and obtain some measure of
satisfaction from it (Berger & Luckman, 1967; Schutz & Luckman, 1973; Geertz, 1973;
Four interviews were conducted with each of the five faculty members over the course of the spring 1990 college semester. The interviews represent a detailed examination of four general areas in their lives: (a) family/social history, (b) experiences as a student, (c) becoming a com-munity college teacher, and (d) experiences as a community college teacher.
Each faculty member was also observed in class three times. Much of the class observation time was spent looking at how each teacher interacted with students, including ways in which the teacher involved students in the class session and verbal exchanges between teacher and students.
Although the names of the faculty have been changed, they shall be referred to as: Fred Dalton, Professor of Chemistry, appointed in 1965; Arthur Nelson, Associate Professor of Business, appointed in 1979, Eve Engels, Professor of Behavioral Science, appointed in 1971; Walter
Harrington, Professor of Mathematics, appointed in 1965; and Sharon Ferris, Assistant Professor of Early Childhood Education, appointed in 1984.
With few exceptions, these professors exhibited the following characteristics:
1. a strong command and organization of their subject,
2. enthusiasm about their discipline and class presentations,
3. an approachable and friendly style with students, and
4. the ability to motivate students to form goals and succeed academically.
Futhermore, these faculty members:
1. spent a considerable amount of time in preparing course presentations;
2. were talented in clarifying difficult, subject matter,
3. were accessible to students outside of class,
4. evaluated their students frequently and always let them know where they stood with
respect to academic performance,
5. had a strong sense of commitment and dedication to community college teaching,
6. understood that many community college students came from troubled family
experiences and lacked academic skills,
7. were able to convey a strong sense of presence in the classroom to elicit student attention
and stimulate student emotions,
8. never embarrassed or berated students,
9. encouraged student participation, and
10. saw themselves as student-centered teachers.
These findings are consistent with the research on effective teaching. But there is more to this group of faculty than the above attributes to explain their effectiveness. With a shift of focus from the attributes of effective teaching to the character of the effective teacher, “hidden characteristics” emerge.
Each faculty member had similar life experiences that help explain their behavior. These faculty members:
1. overcame childhood experiences of hardship and became attracted to the helping
2. were inspired by past teachers;
3. have a distinct identity as teacher/messiah; and
4. need students as much as, if not more than, their students need them.
These characteristics have not been extensively reported in the research literature. Each of these traits is discussed in turn. Wherever possible, direct faculty quotes are used to give the reader a portrait of faculty experiences and perspectives. Discussion on these hidden characteristics is grouped under the following subheadings: childhood biography, school biography, the profession, and the need for an audience.
CHILDHOOD BIOGRAPHY: FROM HARDSHIP TO HELPING
All of the faculty in this study previously experienced either academic failure, family problems, low self‑esteem, or the sense that their lives were going nowhere. They all overcame these barriers.
Fred Dalton grew up on a farm in western Massachusetts, where his daily chores competed with his time to play with the few other kids in the valley. Fred was a highly gifted student. With little effort he outscored most of his classmates. At an early age he planned to achieve a Ph.D. in chemistry, marry, have two children, and live happily ever after. But his marriage did not last, and, although still in his twenties, he terminated his doctoral studies at Purdue and abruptly left for Alaska. It was in Alaska, after two years of near solitude, that Fred came to accept his failures and established new goals.
Arthur Nelson grew up in poverty. His school experiences were a succession of dismal failures. He had no goals. no direction, and after a stint in the Navy, drifted in and out of small jobs. He credits the relationships he built with faculty and staff at Atlantic Community College for turning his life around.
Eve Engels was a brilliant child, always at the top of her class. But she never knew what it was like to "be a kid" because she had to work in her father's business from the age of four until she entered college. Being the best in school was expected of her, and anything less than a grade of A was "considered failure."
Walter Harrington's parents were married and remarried to each other four times. He grew up in poverty, without the ordinary things that other kids took for granted. The family lived in a small shack and had no bathtub or family car. Harrington was a brilliant student, however, winning every scholastic award offered, including a full scholarship to Harvard.
Sharon Ferris had lived in six different states by the time she reached the first grade. Making friends was terribly difficult for her. School was also difficult because of her “low self-esteem.” Constant relocation precluded any chance of forming lasting friendships. Her first academic success came at a private high school, where her natural intelligence was allowed to emerge.
All of these faculty overcame adversity and, from their experiences, became attracted to the helping professions. Harrington knew at an early age that he wanted to teach:
I honestly don’t know why, but from day one I wanted to teach. I wanted to stand in the classroom and impart some of the things I thought I knew something about to people who didn’t know anything about them. (March 5, 1990)
Early experiences of hardship partially shaped the faculty members’ career aspirations. Such experiences also influenced the ways these faculty think about and relate to students. According to Nelson:
My whole philosophy…is to emphathize with the student, and I find that there are so many people here that have such similar backgrounds to myself as far as toubles in school…being below middle-class…being out for a while, looking around, not knowing what to do and then all of a sudden finding yourself back here at the school again. So there are a lot of similiarities that I see between myself and the students that I get here. It’s easy for me to empathize. (April 23, 1990)
Many community college students have experienced adversity, failure, and low self-esteem. Dealing with students who have low levels of aspiration is a common challenge at community colleges.
These faculty believe that “success breeds success,” and they work hard at raising levels of aspiration. They recognize the importance of the student-teacher relationship and point to teachers who had a positive influence on their own lives.
SCHOOL BIOGRAPHY: THE INFLUENCE OF GOOD TEACHERS
The faculty clearly remember and talk about the teachers who exercised a significant influence on them, and they use these past teachers as role models. For Ferris, teacher praise was important:
I needed that praise from Mrs. Carpenter in the 11th grade. I really needed that praise to spur me on. (July 30, 1990)
Dalton patterns his teaching after a chemistry teacher from his freshmen year at Middlebury College, who not only challenged students but also made it clear what was expected of them:
The thing I liked about him was that he was very straightforward, and I think that is what people say about me . . . He made it very, clear what you were expected to know . . . I considered him a model‑always, have‑and I tailor a lot of the ways I approach my courses on the way he approached his. (March 14, 1990)
Nelson's life took direction when he was a community college student:
In high school I hated everything, and here I liked everything. There was no one class I could pick out as favorite. I liked them all. . . . . I just loved it. I had the best time. I met all kinds of people. The teachers were great. And it was all the things that we hear from our students now: how they wish they could stay here for four years instead of just two. And I felt way when I was, here. (March 26. 1990)
All of these professors have tremendous admiration for some of their former teachers who not only "made Shakespeare come alive" or "caused poetry to seem wonderful," but also helped to raise students' level of aspiration. The faculty hasn’t forgotten these past teachers, and they credit them for their success.
THE PROFESSION: TEACHER AS MESSIAH
It became clear from the interviews and class observations that these professors are more than just good at teaching. They are also charismatic, altruistic, and, at some level, see themselves as messiahs. Clarification is needed here on the concept of teacher as messiah.
"Messiah" means "a great liberator of a people." The world's greatest teachers (e.g., Jesus, Buddha, and Confucius) were messiahs. Community colleges attract many students who have experienced failure, drift, and alienation and often look to a teacher for direction and inspiration. In this respect the teacher fills a significant void in the student's life and it is, at some level, messianic in nature. The community college classroom is the secular pulpit for these teachers who, through their talents and charisma, motivate their students' intellectual growth, evoke their students’ emotions, and improve their students' self‑esteem. These talented faculty encourage students to find meaning in their lives, a sense of purpose, a vision.
The teacher/messiah possesses a unique form of altruism, an unselfish commitment to the welfare of the student, approaching the Greek “agape”--unselfish love and concern for others. Teaching is an ongoing passion.
Nelson talked about himself as liberator when he said:
I think more than the material that I teach in the classroom, I want to teach them somewhat of a philosophy on life . . . I want them to leave here motivated to make themselves better, to go someplace in life, to know that they have a potential to end up good, to be well off…and able to make something of themselves. A lot of them don’t even know that they can do that yet. They are not even sure why they are here. Many of them have been failures at everything else that they have tried, and so if they can see success in some small shape or form . . . I think in the long run that is going to help them be better persons. I want them to have . . . a philosophy on life that, in relation to being positive about themselves, they will not take advantage of situations around them. (April 22, 1990)
I said to my wife the other day, “There is something rewarding about graduation day when one student will come up and shake your hand and say 'thanks.' ” It sort of makes the whole year worth it. You go away with a good feeling in your heart that you’ve done something right . . . That makes the whole job rewarding. (May 16, 1990)
For the most part, the experiences faculty have with students reinforce their identity as teacher/messiah. This suggests that students have a tremendous influence on their teachers. Faculty come to need their students as much, if not more, than students need them. Eble (1979) talked about this dynamic when he said:
Teaching is the presence of mind and person and body in relation to another mind and person and body, a complex array of mental, spiritual and physical nets affecting others. Moments of direct interaction expand into the lives of both students and teachers, keeping alive the desire to learn and the will to make learning count. (p. 8)
Teaching not only motivates the professor’s desire to learn, but it also bring a strong sense of purpose to the teacher. Students have the key roles in shaping the professor’s self-image.
SINGING, PREACHING AND TEACHING: THE NEED FOR AN AUDIENCE
Like the singer/performer who needs fans and the preacher who needs a congregation, the faculty need students. They all need an audience.
Through their students, faculty solidify their place in the world. They give meaning to their existence and celebrate their lives as special. Teaching is the way these professors stay in spiritual shape. It puts life in a meaningful context; it gives perspective. Engels spoke about how important each class is:
Each c1ass brings something else into my life and also helps me with my own thinking, my own philosophy, my own ideas and attitudes about particular things that are happening. (June 11, 1990)
These teachers begin to miss classroom interaction when they have been away from it over a summer break. They get excited about coming back to the classroom, where the success of a semester is an unknown and the job ahead of them is difficult.
Teaching strengthens their messiah identity. Through interaction with students, faculty realize a sense of accomplishment; life takes on an added dimension of importance and usefulness. A kind of immortality arises from knowing that other lives have been changed for the better as a direct result of their influence. Teaching is more than exciting for these teachers. It’s a raison d’etre, and these faculty are thrilled and gratified to know that they are respected, remembered, and often loved for their efforts.
In addition to the data about effective community college teaching, research reveals “hidden characteristics” that distinguish certain faculty as particularly effective. These hidden characteristics are, for the most, shared by all the faculty in this study. These faculty members overcame hardship and were drawn to the helping professions. Their choice to become teachers was partly influenced by past teachers. They model their teaching after past teachers and see themselves as messiahs with a special kind of devotion to students. To carry out their perfor-mances, these teachers need a continual stream of new students. And the more these students exemplify their own experiences, the more excited and dedicated these faculty become. Whether they realize it or not, these faculty have come to need their students.
For these faculty, teaching is more than an occupation; it is, a dedication to leave the world
a better place, an opportunity to make a difference in another's life, a chance to enhance one's
own life through a kind of immortality, that of remembrance.
The community college does not offer its faculty the status associated with the university setting. But it does present an opportunity to reach a population whose prospects for success may have been narrowed under stressful circumstances. The rewards to be reaped are based on altruism and a sense than one’s life holds special meaning for a special group. The effective community college teacher is deeply gratified by knowing that he or she has invested in another’s future and will be affectionately remembered for the effort.
IMPLICATIONS FOR PRACTICE
This study is one of only a few studies on effective community college teachers and their interactions with students. Similar research at other colleges needs to be completed to provide the opportunity to compare findings.
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