How do you describe an educator and the work an educator performs? Many people view an educator as someone who is a subject matter expert in their chosen discipline, a gatekeeper to a school's policies and grades, and the one who is charged with providing instruction through the teaching strategies he or she has implemented. As a point of reference: When I use the word "teaching" I am referring not to primary education, rather I am using it as a generic term for instruction, as my perspective is written based upon my work in the field of higher education.
Many institutions value credit hours and scholarly publications as the primary criteria for hiring instructors. Yet having qualifications and publishing articles demonstrates only one aspect of teaching, the tangible aspect, which is preparedness to teach a subject and an investment in ongoing research. Those are important qualities, and necessary as a matter of accreditation standards, but there is something just as important which is not so easily measured or identified. It is the mindset of an educator, which is where an educator's teaching practice is cultivated through habits of thought.
The mindset of an educator will vary, depending upon the classroom environment assigned. A traditional instructor may be focused on how and what to lecture. An online instructor may be concerned with the required facilitation duties to complete. Over time, the effectiveness and quality of both types of educators may improve. An educator may become better skilled with class discussions, finding course resources, and making the course content relevant to the real world. Some educators are highly dedicated to their work, engaged in their classes, and demonstrate a caring attitude for their students. For me, this took time to nurture.
One aspect of being an educator, not often taught in professional development courses, involves methods of inspiring students. This is what I was interested in learning, and it is not about minimizing other essential duties or growth areas needed. It is related to the impact an educator can make while teaching, regardless of the class subject, the format of the class, or the length of time of the course. I wanted to learn how I could make a difference for my students and bring out the best in their performance. It is this transformational journey and discovery of the power of teaching I will share with you.
Professional Development and the Start of My Journey
I have worked primarily in the field of distance learning. Within this field, most of the courses are taught by adjunct instructors. The traditional requirement for scholarly publications is not in place for many of the online schools, and it may seem as if adjuncts are not of the same caliber as professors who conduct research and publish.
I will leave that debate for another post; however, I can tell you there are professional development requirements in place for many online schools, as these schools recognize the need for their instructors to grow and learn, just as they teach their students. The professional development requirement for online adjuncts is often met with openness or disdain by faculty, and typically fulfilled through courses offered by the schools itself.
What does professional development consist of for educators who teach in non-traditional classroom environments? As you can imagine, I have attended hundreds of faculty workshops, programs, and webinars over the past 12 years. I have also facilitated faculty workshops, faculty developmental workshops, and built these types of workshops. The quality has varied but the purpose was always the same, and it was meant to help improve some aspect of the faculty's performance.
Usually what was most helpful for me were the times when I could interact with faculty. During faculty workshops, we could share ideas, best practices, tips, and strategies. What was also helpful in my growth as an educator, and began my developmental journey, was learning adult education principles. That is when I began to understand the potential of teaching and how I could do more than lecture and grade papers.
Learning About Adult Education Principles
I decided to pursue studies in adult education as I wanted to know more about the learning process, and what was pivotal for changing my perspective about how adults learn was understanding the functions of the human mind. I realized the infinite potential the mind has to learn, regardless of age, circumstances, or other labels. I discovered andragogy, which is the principle of self-directed learning. I realized the impact I could have with my students if I could find methods of enhancing my teaching strategies to connect with them and make their studies interesting and memorable.
I already had a caring disposition and now I was awakening to my full potential. Then as I was in my doctorate program, I discovered an organizational developmental strategy that transformed my teaching methods. It is called appreciative inquiry. I connected with it because I could already see potential in my students, and now with appreciative inquiry I had a strategy to use. In its essence, appreciative inquiry is strengths-based, positive-focused, and builds from strengths to work on areas of developments.
I took appreciative inquiry and translated it for distance learning, calling it appreciative andragogy. While I may not implement the full plan for appreciative andragogy today with every student, and in every online class I teach, it has forever influenced how I work, and more importantly, how I interact with my students. It is all part of the disposition I have cultivated and continue to nurture as an educator.
The Power to Inspire Students
Gaining all of this knowledge about adult learning was helpful as part of my transformation, but the most significant transformation in my career occurred when I discovered the power I have as an educator to inspire my students. Knowing how they learn helped improve my teaching. Appreciative inquiry, transformed into appreciative andragogy, helped improve my teaching strategies. But the most transformative aspect of my work as an educator now is finding new ways of infusing creativity and passion into how I teach, so I am a better coach, mentor, and role model for my students.
To inspire students means they want to learn, they are engaged in the class, and when they believe they are unable to succeed, I help them find a way to try again. I nurture their growth so they will find more "aha" moments than "I am stuck" moments. How can you inspire your students? Here are some suggestions:
Be Responsive: When you tell students they can ask questions, don't just make it a statement, make it a personal philosophy that you encourage. When students ask me questions, I take time to offer meaningful assistance and I will check back in with those who have struggled. I also do not wait long to respond to questions for online students as I know how frustrating it can be to wait for a response.
Be a Resource:Students expect you to know the subject matter. You can share your expertise during class discussions by providing context and adding relevance with your involvement. You can also offer additional resources, which can be very meaningful for students who want to excel or have particular career needs.
Be an Uplifter: This is how I inspire my students in the most meaningful manner. This is also where the most power in teaching resides, when you can encourage and uplift your students. They benefit from this approach while they are thriving in your class, and during the times when they are challenged. You can be a coach and a mentor. You can support them when they are plugged into the class, or when they are frustrated and you must work hard to maintain your own emotional intelligence. When you can uplift your students, you will find it brings out the best in you, and the best in your students.
When people think about a job and associate the word "power" with it, there may be a connotation of control. For example, if a leader has power they can control employees and make them comply with the rules. That is not the power I am interested in as an educator. The power I want to have is the power to influence students to perform their best, and if their best effort is what some can achieve while they are in my class, that alone may be an accomplishment. Not all students are going to be high achievers, all at the same time. But every student can feel good about who they are and the progress they are making. That is the feeling I want to instill in students, and I can accomplish this goal as teaching is powerful, when I nurture a mindset that is focused on uplifting, engaging, supporting, coaching, and mentoring my students.