Faculty as change agents

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Over the past 18 months, community colleges have had to dramatically increase supports to students and work closely with them to help address the myriad challenges they have faced during the pandemic and recession. Institutions have helped students not only find pathways through college to careers but find jobs so they can stay in school, and have access to food, housing, childcare and transportation.

We need to build the same kinds of support for the daily work and well-being of our faculty. This will require establishing innovative and collaborative models of professional learning that engage full-time and adjunct faculty in examinations of pedagogy that are responsive to the diverse needs of our students and creates a central role for faculty and staff as change agents within the institution.

Over the past year, my organization has been working with our network colleges to establish cultures of teaching and learning excellence at their institutions with an emphasis on identifying campus strategies for strengthening professional learning design and leadership. Working with cohorts of faculty, staff and leaders, we are collectively examining how institutions can harness the expertise and experience of faculty in designing professional learning that embraces group learning and risk-taking and that develops better ways to actively engage students so that they are motivated and “own” what they learn.   

Rethinking professional development

That work must begin with putting faculty at the center of academic decision-making. Cuyahoga Community College in Ohio understood this when they launched a new initiative to introduce adaptive courseware for gateway courses and looked to faculty to shape the implementation and professional learning opportunities. Instructors from across six disciplines and four regional campuses decided whether to participate, determined which courseware to use in their courses, and were given the flexibility to shift platforms midstream. Faculty members shared teaching strategies, experiences and course feedback with each other, which was essential in expanding the initiative across campuses and disciplines. They were given release time and service credits focused on learning communities; support from instructional designers, technologists and staff from the college’s academic professional development office and campus-based centers for learning excellence; and they had access to a dedicated online site for collaboration.

Professional learning also needs to be collaborative, ongoing and responsive to student input. For example, students, and professional development staff are using a dynamic process to transform courses at Montgomery College in Maryland. Interdisciplinary faculty teams, supported by the colleges professional learning centers, work together to use open educational resources and open pedagogy to engage thousands of students in experiential learning projects focused on sustainability and social justice. This work allows students to bring their own intellectual capital and lived experiences into the classroom and advances the institution’s commitment to create culturally relevant learning environments and more dynamic teaching.

Faculty are supported and rewarded for participation and students are included in feedback sessions to directly share with faculty members what makes for engaging and effective assignments. Faculty members gain new insights from their successes and failures, learn from and challenge each other, solve problems through shared inquiry, and grow as a learning community.

These examples demonstrate the importance of well-structured and well-resourced centers for teaching and learning excellence which can organize cross-functional efforts, helping educators strengthen their practice and support student success. While many community colleges have well-established teaching and learning centers, there is new impetus around the nation to establish new centers or redesign existing ones with faculty leading the way. In 2019, for example, Central Piedmont Community College in North Carolina brought together a cross-functional group of nearly 30 educators who worked with the college’s student success leadership team to plan a new teaching and learning center. The majority of the design team were faculty along with other significant partners (e.g., faculty senate, college equity initiatives). Faculty-driven design efforts such as these are critical to ensuring that centers are seen as collaborative and supportive professional learning spaces.

A different approach to adjunct faculty

Creating a culture of excellence in teaching and learning begins with professional learning that is designed to make efficient use of faculty and staff time and address all faculty, including adjunct faculty who comprise two-thirds of community college faculty nationwide and teach nearly 60% of classes on our campuses. Many of our adjunct faculty members have faced particularly precarious circumstances during the pandemic.

While community colleges are making greater efforts to engage adjunct faculty in student success efforts, we also need to understand the needs of all our faculty members both inside and beyond the classroom. A study of six of the Achieving the Dream network’s Leader Colleges found that students were equally likely to pass or fail courses whether they were taught by full-time or adjunct faculty. But, pass or fail, students taught by adjunct faculty were less likely to progress to the subsequent course in the sequence.

These findings suggest that colleges aren’t providing enough support to allow adjunct faculty to informally advise students on their academic paths. But we saw these patterns change when adjunct faculty were given professional learning supports on par with those available to their full-time faculty peers. particularly when those opportunities for growth are supported by institutional policies and practices and lead to advancement.

Harper College, in negotiations with the faculty union that represents adjunct faculty at the college, created a Tier II status for adjunct faculty designed to recognize and reward an enduring commitment to one’s practice as a teacher and facilitator of student success. Adjunct faculty who have taught at the institution over a period of time may submit a portfolio documenting and reflecting on their engagement in ongoing professional development. This portfolio is paired with a teaching observation by a colleague and then these materials are reviewed by a committee of faculty and administrators. Adjunct faculty who are approved for Tier II status earn a higher rate of pay per credit hour, increased seniority in course selection for successive terms, and a guaranteed interview when a full-time position becomes available in their department.

Building the infrastructure for student success goes beyond supporting all aspects of our students’ lives. Improving teaching and learning must be paramount, and this includes seeing our faculty as professionals who must continue to be supported as lifelong learners and as individuals who bring diverse circumstances, skills, and needs we must understand more distinctly in order to meet our collective goals. We can start by offering faculty meaningful professional learning and giving them opportunities to lead improvements in their own sphere.

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Dr. Karen A. Stout is president and CEO of Achieving the Dream. For more on ATD’s work on teaching and learning, see The Teaching and Learning Toolkit: A Research-Based Guide to Building a Culture of Teaching & Learning, a resource intended to help leaders create on their campuses a culture of teaching and learning excellence.