Category Archives: Fall 2017

What If

By George Nicolopoulos
Assistant Professor, Computer Information Technology

“Hi, my name is Joe. I’m your new student. Where can I sit?”

“In the front of course.”

Lesson one begins.

I asked the class, “What if nothing stood in your way.  There was no chance that you would fail what would you do. What if everything you learn over the next two years will make you a millionaire. What would it take to give 100% effort?”

I survey the class. Every student says they would study like their life depended on it. I wonder to myself how many will and how many won’t. How many can see what if.  Joe does 100 % of the homework with a vengeance. Joe has a wife and a son while living with his uncle and aunt. No Job, no real home.

HIs first job while in school: tech support for the campus. Paid and he could study some of the time. Second job: IT Support for Gorno Ford. Paid even better and he could study some of the time.

Graduation comes. The career services director Sheila asks me to recommend a speaker. I grab the Crain’s Business Weekly. Xoran, a new company out of Ann Arbor, was on the cover. “Oh look the owner’s name is even George.”

The week before graduation George asks Sheila for the resume of our 12 best students. I recommended 12 students but not Joe. Total confusion in her eyes.

Sheila asks “He’s our best student. Why not Joe?” I said, “Set an email to go out the Monday after graduation at 8 am.”

At graduation 4 awards were given out by George to Joe. One was given out by the director and all went to Joe. With Monday comes the demand for Joe’s resume. Sheila tells him to check his email, followed by an immediate interview and hire.

Nothing but smiles on my face, like the cat in Alice.

Joe comes back with a gleam in his eye.  “I got the job!”

“Joe this is the job you will have the rest of your life. In ten years you’ll be a partner.” He laughs. “Not going to happen. Anna wants to have land and go someplace warm.”

Nine years pass. I’m at his house for dinner eating a beautiful steak. Did I say it was beautiful?

Halfway through the meal, he pushes an inch thick pile of papers over to me.

“You were wrong about just one thing it only took nine years.”

Clearing the Bar

By Zach Hoffman
Adjunct Instructor, Computer Information Technology

Although embarrassing to admit, I used to want my students to fail.  As a professional programmer I often deal with peers who seem unfit for the job, so when teaching I feel a personal responsibility to make sure that only qualified developers pass my courses because the reputation of my college depends upon it.  Until a particular experience with a unique student, I used to think of myself as a gatekeeper more than a coach: someone meant to hold the bar, not help them over it.

One Spring semester I had an Advance Java Programming student who I was certain would be unable to clear the bar.  His questions would have been basic for a first-semester student and his assignments were nowhere near what was being asked for.  We had a discussion early on about his comfort level with the material and it became clear to me that his prerequisite instructor had done him a disservice by letting him pass.  I explained to him that he would not have enough time to “clear the bar” without some exceptional assistance but he insisted on trying.  When he turned in an untenable mid-term assignment, I decided to drop him from the course anyway and suggested that he re-take the prerequisite course.

He ended up re-taking it with me the following semester.

I talked to him many times that semester about programming as well as his career and life goals.  He never seemed entirely convinced about why he needed a programming degree, but he never wavered from his conviction to complete it.  I came very close to dropping him from that course as well and I had to explain to him more than once the difference between a withdrawal and a failure, but he wasn’t interested in hearing it.

As I considered whether or not to drop him I found myself thinking about his position.  What service am I doing this person by giving up on him when he hasn’t given up on himself? I revised my approach: rather than asking him to do more work and read more books I started asking him more questions.  What is missing here?  What can I do to help?  Are you making progress? The change was surprisingly rapid once I started giving him support rather than a challenge.  He narrowly achieved a 2.5 and proceeded to take the Advanced course with me again the following semester.

That semester I started working with him on study skills, independent research, and working with peers for support.  He learned to use the discussion board and collaborate with his classmates.  The student that made it to the second half of that semester was a much different one than the one I had dropped before.  And that is when it really stuck with me that helping someone reach the bar is far more rewarding than when they do it by themselves.

Curiosity and Inspiration

By Alan O’Keefe
Assistant Professor, Physics

I have one of the best jobs in the world: I spend hours each day sharing what is (to me) some of the most amazing knowledge I’ve ever learned. This has brought me into contact with hundreds of students over my eleven years of teaching physics. An understanding of physics is not only useful—though it certainly is that—it inspires imagination, thought, curiosity, and appreciation of the universe. Being able to bring my students to that inspiration is why I do what I do. I’ve had the privilege of seeing this in many students, but perhaps none so saliently as K.

I first met K as an undecided student taking a physics class for non-majors at Highland Community College. Though it was her first physics class, she picked up the material quite well. But she showed something far more important than mere aptitude: curiosity. She would regularly stay after class to ask questions, not just over the material we covered in class that day, but about what it meant, in terms of how the universe works and what is possible in it. I was pleased, as the class ended, that she had clearly developed an interest in understanding the universe that would hopefully last long beyond graduation.

I was thrilled, the next semester, when she had signed up for the introductory course for majors. For the next three semesters, she continued to demonstrate both ability and imagination. She not only did quite well in all the courses, but became the treasurer for the local chapter of the Society of Physics Students, completed two honors projects with me, and asked some of the best and most insightful questions I’ve ever had a student ask.

When K graduated, her father walked up to me and shook my hand. I told him that it takes two things to be a great physicist: ability and imagination; and his daughter had a great deal of both. He responded: “I would say that it takes one more: a great teacher. I’ve never seen her so inspired before these last two years.”

The year after she graduated, she stopped by the college to talk with some of her old professors, myself included. She had transferred to Illinois State University, majoring in physics, and was doing quite well. She had decided that she wanted to be a physics teacher when she graduates. I certainly couldn’t object. It is, after all, one of the best jobs in the world.

How I earned: “You are my favorite teacher, you are so cool for caring, thank you”

By Marie-Lynda Akono
Adjunct Instructor, Foreign Language

I had a notion that my class’s population at a community college was going to be different from that of the university in terms of race and economic background. Although the college population seemed, among other factors, racially diverse, students in my course appeared similar to my university students. Even though there were a few African-American students in my course, the majority was still Caucasian students. Thus, to me, they all have resources available outside of class to ensure their success and my expectations for each student were kept high. I did not acknowledge that there was in fact a minority, and that this minority may not have great opportunities growing up and resources available outside of class.

Two African-American females, who were sisters, happened to be in this course. While they were both lacking progress in the course, the influence occurred between the youngest and me. She did not attend regularly nor demonstrated effort to participate when present, and she was not completing much of her online homework. Have I ever reached out? Yes; however, she wouldn’t open up for me to link the potential failure to something outside of class. For instance, she would dress up and always brought a laptop to class. When the end of the semester was nearing and students had to present, she approached me in tears, clarified her personal situation, and stated the power was cut off at their house and she could not work on her computer. I offered my empathy, mentioned a computer lab and was willing to help her succeed in my course. However, she did not pass.

The way I better understood the importance of teaching and learning in a community college setting and my role in making that happen was when I saw this student in the same course the following semester. The first day, she communicated she wants to learn the subject, pass, and would like my help in achieving that. A few days later, my department informed me they are aware a student was repeating my class and that it was important I understood she was younger, less mature, and to keep an eye on her for success. I was unaware that community colleges have programs for high school students to enroll in college level courses. Despite the situation, I focused on the student and reflected on one of the general missions: a community college serves all segments of society […] offers equal and fair treatment to all students. This time, I did not neglect the differences or individual background of my students and exercised an inclusive classroom. I certainly learned to identify my high school students early in the semester. For this particular student, I learned ways to work with her, ensured she successfully completed my course and meanwhile enabled her to develop skills necessary to apply the subject in the real world.

Lifelong Dream

By Michael Pemberton
Assistant Professor, Mathematics

There have been several students over the years that have shaped and cultivated my passion for teaching at the community college. However, one former student, SDM, continues to serve as an inspiration to me due to her unwavering perseverance to accomplish her goals despite all the obstacles she needed to overcome.

I first met SDM when I was assigned to serve as her academic adviser. She was a young woman that had recently decided to enroll in a couple of classes after taking a year-long break from school. Although she did not know what career she wanted to pursue, she had a lifelong dream to become the first in her family to receive a college degree. At some point during our meeting, I convinced SDM that she should enroll in my math class as one of her two courses, even though she informed me that math was a difficult and intimidating subject for her.

Shortly after the semester began, SDM missed several classes, including our first two exams and all calls and e-mails went unanswered for several weeks. It was as if SDM had disappeared. It was not until the following summer, when SDM e-mailed about signing up for classes that I learned what had happened. SDM was living with a friend after having been “kicked out” from her parents’ home following the birth of her daughter. However, SDM was still determined to complete a college degree and provide a better life for herself and her daughter.

So, I convinced her to enroll in my math class – again. This time, however, SDM’s commitment towards success was remarkable. I remember her asking questions during class, attending office hours every week, and getting very involved during exam review sessions. SDM had completely turned her academics around and was noticeably committed to accomplishing her goal. It wasn’t until I realized her passion and excitement in helping others understand the material during group work, that I suggested to SDM whether “she had ever considered being a teacher?” She literally jumped out of her seat at the idea and began telling everyone that she wanted to become a math teacher.

After several semesters, SDM had practically completed every math course offered at the college with a perfect 4.0. She was inducted and served as President of Mu Alpha Theta – the mathematics honor society – and gained valuable experience while serving as a tutor to help others who were struggling through their math classes. When graduation arrived, I watched as SDM walked across the stage alongside her three-year old daughter as she received her college degree. Afterwards, SDM found me among the crowd for a hug and to introduce her daughter to her teacher that never gave up “hope” on her making it through college and to help  accomplish her lifelong dream.

A couple of years ago, I learned that SDM had completed her bachelor’s degree in education and was teaching math at a local area high school. While we have lost touch in recent years, my hope is that SDM has the same opportunity to meet students that serve as her inspiration to teach as she continues to serve for me.

The student’s name was Penny.

By Tedd Sperling
Assistant Professor, Computer Information Technology

She was a vibrant young woman with bright eyes and a very outgoing personality. In class, she was the perfect student. She was always attentive, made good eye contact, responsive to questions, and quick with answers. In short, she was a delight to have in class. She was one of those students that when you finished a lecture, she made you feel good about it.

Over several semesters I had Penny for several classes. She had always received an “A” except for the first class she had with me. She said I was the only teacher who ever gave her a “B”. Unfortunately, the reason was she had been helping another student and she neglected her own work. A sad example of “No good deed …”, but Penny knew why she received a “B” and never complained.

Through the semesters I got to know her well. She often showed me pictures of her brother, of which she was so very proud. He was a very attractive young man. She said he had advanced degrees and was well on his way to making his mark in the world – and I believed it.

One day Penny was not as cheerful as she usually was. I could tell something was wrong, but I didn’t want to intrude. I’ve experienced tragedies in my life and I realize people don’t usually want advice, but rather support in handling difficult situations.

Eventually she told me her brother had been diagnosed with cancer. Over the course of the semester she gave me updates of how her brother was doing – but each time, the prognosis was more and more dire.

One day she came in crying profusely and was almost incoherent. Through the tears, she told me her brother had died: there were funeral arrangements to be made, she had to travel to Texas, and airline tickets had to be purchased. The family was devastated and they needed her help. She knew she had to do something, but then there was school. In short, she was looking for advice.

I told her “Take care of Family First!” That has always worked well for me. She asked “What about school?” I added “Don’t worry about school — just take care of your family and yourself. When you want to return to school, then contact me and we’ll see what can be done. But for now, don’t even think about school”. She thanked me, and I felt I had helped her in some minor way–she left. I prayed for her and her family.

Three weeks later, Penny called me and asked if we could meet. Of course, I said “Yes” and we set up a day and time to meet. Not counting assignments and quizzes, she had missed three weeks (six lectures) and she needed to make-up everything she missed – not an easy task. I set up a schedule for her to meet me two hours before each standard lecture, and I would try to get her back in sync with the class. In doing so, she was never late for any of our meetings and she quickly learned everything I gave her. In six weeks, she had completed all the assignments, quizzes, and was back up to speed. She received an “A” for that course.

This incident supported my practice of providing abundant support when needed, while keeping faith in the student.

A Story of Sailor, the Massage Therapist

By Jodi Wiley
Adjunct Faculty, Massage Therapy

She was a scrappy, no-nonsense, foul-mouthed student from a blue-collar family, built physically as much like a female boxer as she was a massage therapist.  My first memory of her is when she blew onto the scene of a mandatory community service event 15 minutes late, cursing her husband for not being there when she needed him to watch the kids.  My opinion of her was quickly taking shape, and it wasn’t exactly the ambassador that the massage industry needed.  I secretly nicknamed her “Sailor”.

As her education continued over the course of three semesters, I began to see other perspectives of her life, both as a future professional therapist and as a woman juggling school, work and home.  During one clinic, in which students give massages to community members, her client didn’t show up.  She needed someone to work on and called her husband, who arrived to her aid within minutes, but with two small children in tow.  As she settled her children in the waiting area, she demonstrated excellent resourcefulness, quick thinking, and even superior management skills.  I saw her life before me as a constant juggling of demands and priorities.

As she progressed through my classes, a different Sailor began to emerge, one who cared deeply about her clients and desired to help them out of pain and stress.  She was fierce about her learning, coming at it with a passion.

To my surprise, she emerged as a leader among the cohort.  She took the reins of student leadership, just as she did with everything in her life, with gusto.  She reminded the students of upcoming due dates, arranged the most thoughtful student gift exchange I’ve seen as a teacher, and was sure to check up on our ESL student who had a hard time keeping up.

None of her efforts were delivered, though, in a traditional motherly fashion.  I was challenged by my ideas of what a successful student and therapist could look like.  I’m certain that Sailor made more of an impact on me than I did on her.  By the end of the curriculum, I had come to appreciate Sailor’s persona and even respect her massage work.  By then, I had shared with her my nickname for her.  It stuck, though.  I still affectionately call her Sailor.  And she still somehow manages to make brash language endearing.  Today, Sailor is a successful massage therapist and we still keep in touch.

Why It’s Worth It

By John Cally
Adjunct Instructor, Mathematics

Teaching does it for me

 After over twenty years of teaching, I have had a number of memorable moments from my classroom experience.  One, in particular, occurred about five years ago.  A student, Sophie, was enrolled in my math class.

Sophie let me know up front that math was not her strong point and that she had struggled often.  I encouraged her to ask questions and take advantage of my office hours.  I remember her initially being challenged with the in-class practice quizzes and her first exam results were barely passing.

At this time, Sophie realized things had to change and started utilizing my office hours.  She conveyed to me that she was in the process of a divorce and had total responsibility of her young daughter.  I asked her if she thought she could spend enough time on her studies given what she was going through.  She was emphatic that she could do it and that she was going to complete the course.

During the remaining ten weeks of class, Sophie was attending my office hours and coming to class early to discuss problems with me, specifically wanting to know how to recognize what approach to use when solving a problem.  I could see she knew how to solve problems if she had correctly identified the formula(s) to use, so her work focused on how to identify the approach to the solution.

There were a few times when I became concerned when Sophie did not show up to class.  This occurred a couple of times, even after she had attended my office hours the day before class.  I found out afterwards that there were personal issues going on, but she was eager to catch up on the material she missed.

I could tell from her subsequent questions that she was going over the material she had missed and asked relevant questions on the material.

When the second exam took place, Sophie’s performance improved to a 3.0 level.  I could tell she was a bit disappointed, but reminded her how much better she had performed.  At this point she started asking for extra problems to work on.  She said she had done all the homework and quiz problems, so I gave her extra practice problems from the textbook.

By the third exam Sophie had received a 4.0.  She continued improving and ended up with the highest grade on the departmental final.  She was incredibly excited and proud of her performance.  During the next year she communicated with me to let me know how the class helped her with her approach to other classes.

When one of my students starts off struggling with the course material, and suddenly turns the term around and is able to understand the concepts in the course, it is so satisfying to me and that’s what really keeps me going and enjoying being a teacher.

The Reason I am Here

By Jerelyn Champine
Adjunct Instructor, Sign Language

Community colleges provide students with skills that will allow them to be successful in their chosen profession. In addition, they provide students with a high level of education with smaller class sizes. Although many students might transfer to a four-year university, most will start and complete their college education at a two-year university.

I am devoted to maintaining high standards of education, being current in my skills, and a role model for students being lifelong learners. Students learn best in an active, non-disruptive learning environment. They deserve respect from their professors and peers. It is my duty to create a positive learning environment. Anytime we learn a new task, it can be difficult and sometimes one might not realize the challenges until fully immersed. This is exactly how it is in any field of study at any college. I teach in the dental hygiene program and my students have a range of diversity and academic skill levels.

One day in clinic as I was working with Kandy, I could see her struggling to adapt her instrument to her patients’ tooth. As I observed her, I offered to sit down and try to show her the proper technique. Being a hygienist for nineteen years, I sometimes forget how to explain techniques to students. Sitting down and working through the clinical steps myself is more beneficial for the student, and I can show and explain to them how we adapt the instrument to a certain area. After the demonstration, I had Kandy sit down and try to mimic what I was demonstrating to her. This is when I realized that Kandy was not using her mirror properly which would throw her instrumentation off. As I continued to observe and see that she was still struggling, I offered her a suggestion that would correct the placement of her mirror. This is when the light bulb went on and Kandy realized that it was the position of the mirror that prohibited her from adapting the instrument. Once she corrected, she was able to see what she was doing. Students build on their clinical skills from day one. No matter which semester the student is in, they can forget the basics. Watching Kandy improve her skills was very rewarding and reminded me of why I am here. Just as the students are learning, I am also learning and adapting to aid students in achieving success.