How to connect better with students

At the beginning of each semester Carlos Garcia, assistant professor of computer and information technologies at Westchester Community College, shares a collage about his interests to introduce himself to students, build their trust, and encourage engagement in his class. (Photo: WCC)

Culturally responsive pedagogy is more than a nice add-on, according to Juan Rodriguez, Jr., and Sarah Belknap. The two community college educators have found that it’s an effective way to build rapport with students that facilitates learning and helps students — particularly Latinx and first-generation college students — persist in courses and in their pursuit of academic credentials.

Rodriguez and Belknap are instructors and principal/co-principal investigators, respectively, at New York’s Westchester Community College (WCC), where they have led a collaborative research project for the past three years that has tested a professional development model for helping community college faculty adopt culturally responsive instructional practices in STEM courses. The pedagogy and model were developed by the Center for Broadening Participation in STEM at Arizona State University (ASU) with support of previous Advanced Technological Education (ATE) grants from the National Science Foundation. 

In a recent Mentor-Connect webinar, Rodriguez and Belknap share what they have found to be most effective strategies to engage all students. Mentor-Connect, Florence-Darlington Technical College (South Carolina) and ASU researchers partnered on WCC’s project, which was supported by an ATE grant. The American Association of Community Colleges is a Mentor-Connect partner.

In an interview, Rodriguez and Belknap shared key lessons from the collaborative research project that they plan to use for WCC’s new grant that aims to build on the culturally responsive professional development model. The five-year project will share the pedagogy with 14 community colleges in the State University of New York (SUNY) and City University of New York (CUNY) systems. It is funded by the NSF’s Improving Undergraduate STEM Education: Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSI) Program.

“Community colleges are critical in launching STEM learning and careers among Hispanic and other underrepresented students,” WCC President Belinda Miles said in a release about the $3 million in funding. “This grant will have long-lasting and wide-ranging impact on our students and our national economy as we strive to meet the workforce needs of our 21st Century economy with a well-trained, diverse workforce.”

Lesson #1: Logistical support

Rodriguez, a professor of cybersecurity at WCC, and Belknap, a mathematics instructor, were in the first cohort of WCC faculty who learned the culturally responsive instructional practices from ASU researchers several years ago. In addition to teaching full-time while they were leading the HSI ATE Hub 2 project, both had milestone experiences: Rodriguez completed a doctoral degree in education and Belknap had her second child.

They don’t consider themselves unusual. From their vantage point, all community college faculty are balancing teaching loads with many other responsibilities and activities. Belknap summarizes the takeaway from this reality: “If you want faculty to be doing professional development work, you have to be providing containers and compensation and structure and organizational support.”  

Consequently, the new WCC initiative is structured to provide logistical help and other support to participants.

Lesson #2: Acknowledgement

Having students and instructors make and share collages about their lives and interests is the culturally responsive practice most widely adopted by WCC faculty. Rodriguez noted that this is probably because it is one of the easiest to adapt to existing curricula. But the lesson he learned is that even in large classes where it may not be possible for every student to present their collage during class time, the educator must acknowledge each student’s collage with an oral comment or an email note.

“You have to tell them, ‘Hey, I like this,’ or ‘Thank you for showing this to us.’ You have to respond … to the students to let the students know, one, that you actually saw it. And two, that you actually care,” he said.

Lesson #3: Personal connections

Building rapport with students can diffuse test anxiety and tension about world events. That’s why they encourage faculty to make and share their personal collages with students at the beginning of each semester.

“I think the most important thing is to just sort of be authentic and open and be aware that you don’t know everything about every culture … and I think that part of the value of these trainings is getting people to work through, those worries,” said Belknap in response to a question whether the collage assignment and others might be considered too personal or otherwise misinterpreted.

She said the professional development helps educators structure the pedagogy to fit their style and subjects: “That’s what I think is so exciting is that this is kind of a container for people to do that internal work and think through how do they want to represent themselves in a classroom, and how are they going to respond to how students represent themselves in a classroom.”

Lesson #4: Opening up

It is OK for faculty to share a little bit of their vulnerability, according to Rodriguez. He has found that telling students that he is a first-generation college student and that he began his postsecondary studies at a community college facilitates positive classroom interactions. He also thinks being nice goes a long way. For instance, he allows people to enter his classes late — unlike some colleagues who do not grant classroom entry to latecomers — but he asks students to explain why they are late.

“If you just show them that you care, they don’t want to disappoint you. So they’ll come in, you know, they’ll email you when they can’t come in, and they say ‘I’m so sorry,’ [and explain] something happened,” he said.

He’s found they are also more likely to ask to speak with him after class if they are having challenges.

“Promoting that atmosphere that we do — the students feel more comfortable. They feel like, ‘Yeah, I can talk to this guy, and he’s going to understand because he went through it,’” he said, adding, “Once they trust you, they’ll do anything for you.”

Lesson #5: Staying the course

Belknap said one of the big benefits of “authentic connection” with students is that “they feel more comfortable being themselves.” Then, she finds it is a lot easier for her to find out what the problem points are for them in comprehending math. “Because they’ll just tell me,” she said, explaining that in the past students were shy about admitting they were struggling with math concepts.

The courses she teaches range from developmental math to Calculus.

“I do still have students that need to drop my class, but I know where they are and I feel like I can help them stay engaged with the campus community,” she said.

Belknap likes that fewer students “just disappear,” and has found that those she has advised to withdraw in order to preserve their grade point averages or to deal with life situations usually re-enroll in the course at a later time.

“If you just show them that you care, they don’t want to disappear on you,” Rodriguez said.

Lesson #6: Reviewing office hours

As her rapport with students improved in the past few years, Belknap said she learned that in some cultures asking for help or attending office hours was considered a sign of weakness. Also, she learned that many first-generation college students did not understand that office hours were when instructors were available to help them.

She now makes a point of explaining office hours; the results have been very positive. In one of her courses this spring, a large group of students went immediately to her office after class. And for every course she taught this spring, she had at least one student — and often more than one — at every single office-hour session.

“They’re in my office. I’m helping them with the material — They’re understanding better. They are learning the study skills that I want them to know, about how to learn mathematics, and then they’re taking that into my class. And the performance is skyrocketing,” she said.

The project pitch

Rodriguez summarized his pitch to the SUNY and CUNY faculty he hopes will participate in the New York  HSI Hub project: “Come in and learn how to make your class not only culturally relevant but make it a place of safe space so that the students will feel very comfortable coming to you. By the time you finish, your retention will stay high. Not many kids will drop your class. And you’ll get students who are very, very committed to your classroom.”

About the Author

Madeline Patton
Madeline Patton is an education writer based in Ohio.
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