Category Archives: Spring 2020

How a 17-year-old Made Me a Better Teacher

Tracy Nothnagel
Legal Assistant

In my first few years of teaching, I had the attitude that I didn’t care if students showed up to my classes or not. It was my belief that they were in college and if they didn’t want to come to class then that was up to them. If a student stopped coming to class, I just went on as usual and didn’t care to find out why. That all changed when I met Rachael. Rachael was 17 years old and in my Introduction to Paralegal Studies class. Now you see, this was rare as I was teaching at a University and I had never had a student so young in my class. Most students didn’t get to my classes until they completed their two years of general education courses.

Early in the semester I noticed there was something special about Rachael. After reading the first paper she wrote in my class, I was knocked off my feet. She was 17 and a brilliant writer. She was the best writer I had seen in my five years of teaching. All I kept saying was, “Wow, she is 17.” Through this assignment I learned that Rachael aspired to be a lawyer and I thought, she is going to be a great lawyer and really excel in law school.

About one month into the semester, Rachael stopped coming to class. She would show up on quiz days and always get the highest grade, most of the time it was 100%. I kept wondering why she didn’t show up. I thought, is it me, does she just not need me to learn this material? However, I did nothing. Midterm week came and she showed up for class and aced the exam. I don’t know why I did what I did after that, but I am glad I did. I reached out to Rachael by email. I asked her why she hadn’t been coming to class. I told her how brilliant I thought she was. I explained that in future classes it will be necessary to show up. What happened next surprised and changed me forever.

Rachael emailed me back and said she was struggling in her personal life. She said her parents just found out she was a lesbian and they did not accept that. In her culture, this is not accepted and is actually looked down on. She was living with her girlfriend’s family and was missing home. She wanted her family to accept her and she didn’t know how to live without that acceptance. Over the remainder of that semester, Rachael and I built a relationship. I looked at her as my little sister or a niece. We talked about her goals, she cried in my office and I just tried to be there for her as much as I could. Rachael finished the semester and I didn’t see her for a few years as she finished her general education credits. When I saw her two years later in my legal writing course, she told me that what I did changed her life and that my email and mentoring pushed her to continue with her studies and show up for class. By this time, her parents had accepted her life choice and they embraced her girlfriend and her family life was great.

Over the years, I have kept in touch with Rachael. I saw her graduate from college, law school, marry her high school sweetheart, and become a mother and very successful lawyer. I am forever grateful for that day I sent that email. When Rachael told me what difference I made, I cried. When she graduated law school, we met for drinks and I told her she changed my life too. I told her she made me a better a teacher from that day forward. I now reach out to students who stop showing up and I am often surprised by their responses. I am a better teacher because of what I learned from a 17-year-old college student.

But Wait, There’s More

Thomas Keyes
Welding Technology

There is very little that brings me the feeling of a job well done more than seeing one of my students leave their booths with a confident stride and a smile on their face, eager to show me the weld that they had just produced. For these moments, I choose to share my knowledge, my experience, my enthusiasm for the craft, to teach.

I have taught and trained welding to many on the job for quite a few years. In 2017, I came to LCC to do so in an academic environment. The institution’s requirements were stringent and required that I invest in the American Welding Society as a Certified Welding Inspector. This required me to commit to an online course, a one week seminar, and a six hour long examination. I passed the exam and received my certification. I educated myself to be the best candidate possible and was successful.

The first semester that I taught, I was paired with a highly respected colleague as a “shadow”. I thought this an excellent opportunity for me to learn how to teach in this environment. I learned the software used, safety procedures, equipment repair requests, practical and classroom testing. I am a highly accomplished craftsman and have many years of experience teaching “on the job”. This most certainly was not the same. I am grateful to have had the opportunity and learned an incredible amount in a relatively short period of time from an excellent instructor.

I have never worked in a place so devoted to diversity and inclusiveness as it is embraced and encouraged here at LCC. I will be challenged by the students and faculty here to be the best instructor that I can be. I am encouraged to obtain more certifications and utilize the resources available to me through the Center for Teaching Excellence. I received my AWS certification as an educator. I obtained my level II visual inspection certification from the American Society of Nondestructive Testing. I’ve taken advantage of courses to learn our instruction software and, presently, the course, “Transforming Learning Through Teaching”. I am incredibly engaged with learning here. I am dedicated to being an effective and successful teacher. The joy it brings me to see a student feel a sense of pride in their work is what makes me want to learn, to always be a student. There’s always more…

Mentorship in Teaching

Jon Ten Brink
Music

Some students just stick with you. We only worked together for a year, but I will never forget J. He was trying to finish his collegiate career; his third attempt at finishing his senior year after twice giving up mid semester. J was plagued by a myriad of barriers. He struggled with mental health issues and was regularly overwhelmed. His enthusiasm for the subject was palpable in person, but he struggled to focus his attention on completing the necessary work. I knew this was his last chance, but how do you help a student who will not do what needs to be done?

We started with the clearest of directives. We broke down what needed to be done in a series of goals for the semester, the month, the week, and the day. We soon discovered he still needed more specificity and we made a daily schedule broken down by the hour and, at times, to the minute. He set alarms on his watch. We built in reminders and secondary deadlines. This helped. Everything was moving smoothly, relatively speaking, until the draft of his recital notes was due. The day before this massive undertaking needed to be reviewed by a panel of music professors, he had written barely a word. This was a milestone marker—failure to produce the document would stall his chances to graduate.

I sat J in my office, at my computer at 10 AM that morning and told him he would not leave until it was completed. Between giving lessons I checked on his progress and helped edit and guide his process. Nearly 12 hours later, still in my office sitting at my computer, he completed the document, which passed the prescreening the next day. He graduated later that year.

J taught me a valuable lesson on what it takes to be a teacher. It would be easy to write off his struggles; to see a student who would not follow through and let him fail. Finding a way to help him achieve his goal took time, it took energy, and it took creativity. If my role is merely to give information, point the way, and get out of the way, letting students pass or fail solely on their merits brought into the classroom, how many students would get left behind, and what am I really teaching? However, if my role is to help students achieve their goals, I need to do more. Teaching isn’t presenting information. It is mentorship. It is exhausting. And it is so worth it to see your students succeed.

First Impressions

Jill Fultz
Psychology

“Another chronically late student, so disrespectful;” “Oh sure, just keep checking your phone, it’s not like I’m trying to teach up here or anything!” These are some of the thoughts that may enter the minds of instructors during those first few days of class. I used to think that my first impressions of students were quite accurate; after all, I have been an instructor for several years and hold an advanced degree in psychology! Then I met Rebecca, and I learned how wrong first impressions can be, and that potential is not always displayed on the surface.

At first Rebecca showed all the signs of a student that was not taking class seriously. She always arrived without any essential materials. She seemed disinterested in the course, and had trouble staying off of her phone during class. Needless to say, my first impressions of her were not overly unfavorable. Rebecca was late on the day of our first exam. However, when she arrived, I was surprised to see that she had all of her materials and seemed prepared. At the same time, I noticed that she looked like she might have been crying. Was she finally realizing the effort that this class was going to require? Was she going to ask for an extension on the exam? No. She said she was ready to take it. We talked a bit more, and she disclosed that her fiancé had passed away from a chronic illness just days before. I was stunned. How could she possibly manage to be coherent, let alone be prepared to take an exam? But she was. She had studied and explained that she didn’t want to fall behind. We made plans for her to take some time for herself and worry about the exam another day.

Rebecca’s previous behaviors suddenly made sense. Whenever she had appeared to be distracted, unprepared, or disinterested she was actually dealing with a tremendous personal and emotional issue that ultimately culminated in the death of a loved one. Her dedication was nothing short of amazing. I realized that I had judged her completely wrong.

This experience caused me to reflect on my own unconscious biases. As educators, we need to really know our students. We need to start with the thinking that everyone is trying to better themselves as students, but they all have personal/family/professional stresses they are trying to balance with their academic pursuits. An essential part of our role must be to support students in their achievements in spite of, or in addition to, any obstacles they may be encountering outside of school.

But Why?

Jason Mitchell
Computer Information Technology

When my daughters were three years old, no matter what I said it was always followed with a question of Why?  As a parent, I would do my due diligence and answer the best I could.  This was followed up with additional “but whys”.  I would explain further until I reached the exhaustive point of “because I said so” or “because that’s the way it is”.   I teach in a very specialized field and as a teacher, I expect the Why’s, and even the “but whys”.  Heck, in my line of work it is expected and respected.

A bit of background on myself, by trade I am a cybersecurity expert. I prefer penetration testing which includes hacking into networks by exploiting vulnerabilities. One of the best attributes a penetration tester is asking questions; Why does the computer respond in the way that it does?  What if I do something not expected? In the classroom, I help those discover the questions and seek out answers.  Most of my students are curious types. In Spring 2019, I met my match. We will call him Nick. Nick lived and breathed Cybersecurity. He probably knew enough to teach the class; he just lacked the nuances needed to pass the industry certification. Nick’s curiosity got the best of him and he had a habit of always talking over the lecture, asking Whys and But Whys and dissecting every little bit of information.  Twenty-minute lectures would go on for an hour.  My normal answering tactics I learned as a parent does not transfer well to students.  Saying “because that’s that way it is” doesn’t work.

I took a weekend and wrote down strategies to “take back” the classroom to satiate Nick and keep us on schedule. I first started with my lesson plan and crafted more thought out lectures and labs.  I spent hours thinking about what questions he might ask and writing the answers.  I also built discussion forums that had open-source education resources and the ability to post questions. Lectures still took longer, but it cut down on the number of side questions. If in-class questions required more discussion, I moved it to the online forum.  Mid-term assessments showed an improvement over previous semesters. Nick “forced” me to be a better teacher and improve upon my approaches to learning.  I will always think of him when I hear “why”?