What Motivates Professors to Teach Community Colleges?
By Kathleen Brill
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, June 25, 2004;
Community college teachers need to be ready for anyone who walks through their classroom door.
"If they love teaching, if they love seeing the student learn, and if they really are committed to the notion of the American dream of education being available to everyone… the community college is where that dream comes true, and no other place," says Ron Roberson, vice president of academic affairs at Howard Community College.
Roberson, who formerly taught at a private Quaker high school, says that while his early teaching experiences were rewarding, he prefers the community college's open-access environment.
"I was very interested in teaching a broader spectrum of people," he says. This is more challenging, it's also very rewarding… because I'm here, people will succeed who otherwise would not," Roberson says. "You see yourself as a change agent on a whole other order."
Community college teachers work in a classroom of students with varying levels of academic preparation, a range of ages and a mix of ethnicities and cultural backgrounds. Many of the students also balance jobs and family with the time spent studying and in school. Working with these students requires a lot of flexibility in teaching styles and methods, he says.
"Just going into a room and reading your notes won't cut it here," Roberson says.
Educating students who may be less prepared as those attending a four-year college doesn't require that course materials be watered down, says Alicia Juarrero, adding that her philosophy courses at Prince George's Community College in Maryland- covering Socrates, Plato, Descartes and Kant-are on par with what she sees being taught at major universities.
Many of her students are just as bright as regular undergraduate students, and when they continue their educations at four-year colleges, law schools and medical schools, Juarrero says they continue to compete successfully.
"When I teach, I know the quality I expect at the college level, and so I evaluate on that basis… not on effort," Juarrero says.
However, she tries to help the students in her classroom who may have a few gaps in their education, and sometimes defines vocabulary terms in class.
"When you know their lives, it makes you a better teacher; you can use a phrase or an analogy to communicate an idea."
While some students lack previous academic training, many make up for it with an extremely strong motivation to absorb as much out of the school as possible.
"They're not there because Mommy and Daddy paid for college, or because they are expected to go to college," says Juarrero. "They're very motivated- I would almost say driven- they need to know the sorts of things that people that go to the Harvards and Yales may take for granted."
Accomplishing the Community College Mission
Most community colleges offer courses ranging from strictly academic subjects that are designed to prepare people for further academic study, to continuing education enrichment courses that are not graded. Many colleges also partner with local businesses to provide career-oriented training in fields such as technology or health care. Often, the range of courses offered at a community college will reflect the needs and goals of the community it serves.
"Community is the heart of the community college," Engleberg says. "It reflects its community demographically and culturally."
Max Bassett, dean of academic student services at Northern Virginia Community College, says that finding good teachers for a diverse range of educational goals sometimes is a challenge for community colleges.
"There is no score for teaching potential," Bassett says. "Many people think 'I've got a master's degree- I could teach!' and then find it is more challenging than they expected." he says. Sometimes teaching experience at the high school or university level is helpful; but it doesn't guarantee a smooth transition in the community college classroom.
"The people that we're looking for have got to work with a diverse group of people," Bassett says. He recommends that people who are interested in teaching at their local community college first participate in other forms of community-based work with groups of people. Scouting, church groups, coaching or senior citizen groups are places to get involved, he says.
As an open-door institution, the students are motivated to be in school. Some see community college as an inexpensive bridge between high school and a four-year degree. Others arrive after years away from school and may have fears about their ability to compete with younger students, Bassett says.
Angela Rhoe began teaching English at Prince George's Community College in the fall of 1999. She chose this instead of high school teaching in part because she wants to work with these self-motivated students.
"What I enjoy about teaching at community college is interacting with my students as adults instead of children… it is solely up to them," Rhoe says. "Their progress means everything to me, because then I know I'm effectively doing my job."
Depending on the type of class, practical professional experience is another important asset teachers can bring into the classroom.
"The overall goal is to produce someone who is ready for the world," says Frederick Fair, associate professor for the Department of Speech Communication and Theater at Prince Georges Community College.
Fair is a former fire fighter and a part-time radio announcer with the Washington D.C. Jazz 90 radio station, which is no longer on the airwaves. Fair also worked in radio with the Armed Forces Thailand Network. Fair's real-world experience helps him to inspire students, and to demonstrate how skills they develop in the classroom, such as oral communication, can translate into the real world. One of Fair's former classes traveled with him to a disaster site at Princeville, North Carolina, after Hurricane Floyd in 1998. The students assisted with everything from food distribution to salvaging possessions from damaged houses.
"We've got to say it goes beyond the textbook and oral reports in class, and put it all into a practical setting. To just get a degree and not give back to the community- then that's really a lesson in futility," Fair says.
Rewriting the Myth: Community Colleges Nurture Scholars
Community colleges are frequently overlooked by many people with doctoral degrees simply because they've never been inside one during their own academic training.
"They're not on your radar screen…" says Alicia Juarrero, philosophy professor at Prince George's Community College.
When Juarrero finished her doctoral degree with the University of Miami at about the same time that the Viet Nam war was ending, she says many colleges and universities were hiring fewer faculty members. She applied to Prince Georges Community College because she lived nearby.
What began in 1975 as a simple way to earn money turned into a cornerstone of her academic career.
"I sort of gradually fell in love with the place," Juarrero says.
Juarrero, like many professors at community colleges, discovered she was not in a dead-end job for a serious scholar.
"If you're good it doesn't really matter," Juarrero says. "If you really want to teach, community college teaching is the most rewarding you can find. You don't have to worry about research and the 'publish or perish' syndrome…you're rewarded for teaching students who really need to the best, and really deserve the best."
Juarrero sets a high standard for her work at Prince George's Community College, both in her teaching and her scholarly activities. She says she does not feel that choosing to focus her teaching efforts at the community college presented any kind of stigma or barrier to participating with the broader academic community in other scholarly activities. She recently wrote the book "Dynamics In Action: Intentional Behavior as a Complex System," which was published by the MIT Press in 1999, and was followed by a paperback edition in 2002.
Common Career Paths at Community Colleges
Community colleges offer teaching positions for full-time faculty, adjunct professors, and administrators. Opportunities also exist for lab instructors, instructional assistants and instructional designers who support the professors and students.
Vivian Lawyer, chief human resources officer for Montgomery College, says that community colleges provide a lot of support and training to new faculty and adjunct professors, but that it is a good idea test the waters with "one class first" before becoming a full time professor.
Ron Roberson, Howard Community College's vice president of academic affairs, says that adjunct professors tend to fall into two additional broad categories: People wish to continue as adjuncts while they continue their full time jobs, and "professional adjuncts," who teach at a number of different colleges and are seeking a full-time faculty position.
Roberson advises those who wish to be full time faculty to seek statistics on their college's hiring patterns-some colleges promote a higher percentage of adjunct professors to the faculty.
Administration is another career path for professors at a community college. Roberson recommends that people who wish to move into community college administration should first work as a full time faculty member, and then a department or division chairperson.
"Multiple paths lead to being dean of academic affairs… those who go to school to learn to be an administrator may be tempted to skip a step," Roberson says.
His experiences as a faculty member and a division chairperson makes it easier from him as the current vice president of academic affairs to know what is really an issue and how to handle problems when they arise, he says.
Lifelong Training and Enrichment
Not all courses require grades or offer academic credit, while other courses prepare people for specific jobs or additional college degrees. People with a new idea for a course should consider approaching a community college's continuing education program, where unconventional subjects and teaching methods are more likely to be welcomed by the college.
"Continuing education is a place where you can try out an idea… it has the most flexibility to meet the college's needs as well as the needs of creative individuals," Lawyer says. These classes might meet only for a day or a series of weeks, and can be tailored and tested out to see if students respond to or need the course, she says.
JoAnn Hawkins, associate vice president for continuing education and workforce development at Howard Community College, says that while programs vary for each college, most continuing education programs focus on workforce development or developing special skills and interests.
Teachers at this level will find students who "either want to learn because it's subject matter they're interested in, or they have a stake in it, like they need a job," Hawkins says.
Qualifications to teach at the continuing education level vary according to the field, she says. Health care organizations or technology companies may have very specific goals and requirements for a course, and teachers engaged in workforce development will need practical field experience in addition to degrees or certifications required in their profession.
Some continuing education teachers find their way to the classroom as a way to compensate for full-time careers that don't necessarily take advantage of all of their skills and interests. Many of these are offering courses that fall into the personal enrichment category.
"We had an oral surgeon who taught Gaelic," Hawkins says.
John McCann, english professor at Prince Georges says he was surprised to discover that his continuing education classes began to inform his teaching skills more than his for-credit courses did.
"As a result, I'm a little less formal. Once the onus of grades is gone from the equation, my role there is not to be a kind judge… I'm truly a facilitator. It gets much more Socratic. I really get closer and closer to this Socratic notion of teacher as a guide rather than a professor."
"I'm not here to impart; I'm here to extract," he continues. " I can get the same points across without having to be the lecturer. I can get them across by the questions I ask," McCann says.
His first continuing education class was a memoir writing class for senior citizens. which taught him how to nurture the personal enrichment side of continuing education.
"It has nothing to do with grades and getting a degree… this is serious exploration of their lives," he says. Some of his students have written 130 chapters of what has turned into complete autobiographies.
"To be working with this particular constituency… it's challenged me to think about teaching in ways I never anticipated. I had very few expectations of any kind going in there. I let the energy of the people guide me."
Editor's note: This article by Kathleen Brill, was first acquired by washingtonpost.com on March 7, 2003.
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