This article first appeared in the Teaching Professor on May 1, 2013. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.
Being a college professor sometimes feels lonely. Yes, we have colleagues in our departments and elsewhere on campus, students in our classrooms, and administrators who support us, but we also spend a lot of time working by ourselves. As new faculty members, we decided that “the power of we” was important for enhancing pedagogical practice, and we thought that maybe the cycle of loneliness could be broken by a pedagogy group. What follows describes how we formed the group, what we have done together, and, most important, what we’ve gained from the experience. We’re not the first to tell this story, but our view is that, to paraphrase a famous thought, in a time of teaching to the test, erasing the barriers between student and teacher is a radical act.
It started in September 2011. We were all full-time assistant professors but from different fields: speech communication studies, psychology, education, political science, and economics. We kept finding ourselves at events that offered information on teaching and learning and realized we all had a shared common interest: we wanted to know more about our teaching and our students’ learning. We decided to start getting together and have continued to do so.
Our meetings are always welcoming; anyone can assume leadership. We do not formulate strict agendas, and we encourage any type of participation. One of the highlights and often the most time-consuming portion of our meetings is our story sharing. Some stories are recent (“I just got out of a class and …”). Other stories are from our past (“At my last teaching position …”). We collaborate, engaging in conceptual practitioner research. By that we mean intentional inquiry done by practitioners with the goals of gaining insights into teaching and learning, becoming more reflective, and effecting changes in the classroom and our students’ lives—that’s a definition offered by educators Cochran-Smith and Lytle in a 1993 publication. We think about it a bit more simply: we study how we practice.
Our stories and questions are varied: some questions focus on how we can engage students, how we can alter physical spaces in classrooms, the professor’s role in the classroom, and what instructional tasks are most important. Inevitably our discussions lead us to this central question: what are students learning in our courses? We have come to share the same vision. We all value collaboration, both among colleagues and with our students, and are aware that creating an inclusive classroom is a challenge.
During our conversations we tackle hard questions about what is (and isn’t) happening in our classrooms. For example, why are so many students hesitant to express curiosity or debate other students? How can we help them become more interested in learning this content that we find so interesting? To what extent are the frustrations we experience caused by our limitations versus societywide stumbling blocks to engagement, sharing of ideas, and learning?
As a result of these questions, we have discovered that it can be very helpful to observe one another’s teaching. Because we have established a warm, collaborative rapport in the group, these classroom visits are rich and welcomed. We don’t go to each other’s classes to conduct an evaluation. We are there to better understand the teaching contexts out of which we speak and for the observer to experience learning in a new way, through the lens of a student. Through observation, we see our stories come to life, learn from one another, and begin to widen the lens of what “teaching” looks like when others do it. Again, this activity makes us feel less alone and more connected.
These past few years have been quite a journey for us. Some of us came to the group with different backgrounds and different pedagogical knowledge bases. Some of us knew more about education than others did. Despite these knowledge differences, each of us has experienced “the power of we.” We have created and continue to build a truly collaborative environment where everyone’s voice is heard, everyone’s opinion counts, and knowledge is not merely transferred but co-created within our group. What we share with each other encourages more sharing, more learning, and increased effectiveness in the classroom. We don’t have a laundry list of strategies but rather a process that we use to successfully develop our instructional effectiveness, to promote continued self-reflection, and to motivate regular collaboration with peers who care about teaching. We hope that what we’ve described here will inspire others to do the same so that more teachers who have felt lonely will experience “the power of we.”