August 5, 2015

Ready for School to Start

It is the start of the school year for many students. I am always surprised how early school starts in some places in the nation. Some of my friends and colleagues have little ones, elementary aged children, and I have noticed a uptake in back-to-school photos going up on social media. It is always so cute to see these kiddos with their new hair cuts, school shoes, and backpacks. Their little faces are so excited to start a new year at school.

I can remember how I felt when it was time to head back to school. I loved everything about that moment -- getting to pick out new gym shoes, pencils, folders, etc. My Mom took us to Ben Franklin so we could get whatever we needed for school. It was like Christmas in August to me -- the whole experience -- was so special. In truth, I liked starting school better than I did going to school, but that is a different story.

Today was a good day for me. I spent the morning out at GCU learning how to conduct peer reviews for adjunct faculty. I didn't really want to get up early, but the morning was fruitful and now I am an official peer reviewer (paid) so hooray! As I spent the day at GCU, I started to think about school starting and how I am rather excited for the opportunity to teach in the fall. It has been a long and difficult process to get to this point in the day when I can say that I "like" teaching. Yes, if you search my blog way back in 2013, you will read posts and posts where I lamented the whole process of learning how to teach. I cried, whined, and I pretty much complained my way through 3 semesters of teaching. I admit it now because it is true, so very true. I wasn't a very gracious receiver of the blessed gift of teaching at all -- even though I said that this is what I wanted, asked for, prayed over, etc. Yes, I had an ungrateful heart, and for the most part, I found fault with everything and anything related to teaching (lack of money, too much work, no benefits, etc.). I did it, I said it, and I believed it back then.

Of course, times heals all wounds as the saying goes, and I think the truth is that, time, in general, does help "trouble" (complaints, concerns, worries, etc.) pass in a similar way. I mean, the longer you come to do something, the more comfortable you are in doing it. In the long run, something that you might not of enjoyed initially could become one of your most treasured experiences in the end. This is how I feel about teaching. I am absolutely enjoying myself, and I cannot think why this is so. I mean, what did I do to change my mind about the profession? Was it just time, experience, practice? I am not sure, but I can say that today I felt especially comfortable being known as a teacher.

Reframing the Story

In communication research, scholars will often look to see how people "frame" stories. Framing is similar to what teachers do in the classroom whenever they are introducing a new piece of literature. We "prime" the text, so to speak, by giving the backstory on the author, the cultural context including historic details, and any cues as to the author's point of view. All of this priming helps the student ease into the text, and the hope is that they will glean from it the particular "points" the teacher hopes they will see. Of course, students are individuals with their own opinions and perspectives, so priming only goes so far. The student has to buy-in to the text, and be willing to accept this "primed" objective. Some educators insist that priming is not necessary, and as a result, they give students "cold readings" to tackle. Research has shown that cold readings rarely are successful, and that students do benefit from some background preparation.

Likewise, in framing a story, the journalist or writer "sets up" the story so that the reader gleans not the truth, but the "interpreted meaning" as suggested in the article. This type of framing is most often seen in news stories in papers, magazines, and television. McCombs and Shaw (1972) posited a theory on Agenda-Setting, Priming, and Framing that stated that news media could set the "agenda" by popularizing certain stories. Thus, the more frequently a story is repeated in the news, the more the public buys into it. Walter Lippman (1922) was the first to suggest this type of framing or priming of public opinion because he argued that the news media was the agency acting "in between" the world and the public. The news controlled the images distributed to the public through mass media, so in effect, the news media could powerfully promote, swing, or sell a story simply based on their access to the event.

I think we can all agree that most of the news we receive today is framed toward a particular perspective. If you watch cable news, you know you are getting some "spin" regardless of your political point of view. Some will argue that news is framed, and others will concede to some priming and framing, but will stop short of saying that all news suggests a particular agenda. In my view, it does seem that current and popular news is framed, and even when a news outlet such as Fox News says that it is "fair and balanced," there is obviously some bias in the reporters tone, approach, and design of their reported stories. Thus, agenda setting, priming, and framing is something we see daily, and unfortunately, have grown accustomed to accepting. We "expect" that the stories we read or hear about are not 100% accurate or truthful. Thanks to mass communication, we have been conditioned to be skeptical of all reported truth.

As I consider my role as teacher, one thing stands out for me. I need to be careful how I frame my subject matter content. I have a great deal of control in the classroom, and as such, I can be a powerful influence in what my students "take away" from their time in my class. I do try to be as unbiased as possible, but frankly, it is difficult to do. I find it hard to remove my own opinions and beliefs from what I am teaching at any given moment. As much as I know I should do it, I simply do not always remember to stand back and let my students "discover" the truth on their own.

Putting Framing into Context

I stated in the opening section of this piece that I am excited to begin the fall semester. I noted that it was just one or two semesters ago when I felt that I was not a good teacher nor was I prepared or equipped to teach. I felt that I was in the wrong profession, having taken a wrong turn some years ago, and as a result, I didn't enjoy teaching. Thus, over the course of two-three semesters, I have changed my mind about teaching. I wondered how this was so, and what motivated me to change from "not liking teaching" to "loving teaching." I suggest that the change was one of framing. I chose to reframe my story, to suggest a plausible reason and outcome, and in doing so, I came to see my experience in a different light. Let me explain...

As I drove away from GCU, I realized what a gift I had been given to work as an instructor at this fine institution. Granted, GCU is not Harvard, Princeton, or Yale, but it is a good quality Christian university. It has a good track record, and a strong infrastructure dedicated to meeting the needs of students and faculty alike. In fact, one of the reasons I liked GCU initially was because they offer instructors a lot of support -- training sessions (online and FTF) along with multiple opportunities to grow in research, in pedagogy, and in practice. They are truly supportive of their faculty, and they seek to enfold and encourage instructors regardless of their rank or abilities. I liked this when I first started teaching, and I still like it today. I see GCU as a school dedicated to producing better teachers, and for me, that is a fine mission indeed.

Furthermore, I started to think about my schedule at GCU, and the fact that I teach what is called a 3/3 load. In many school's this is considered a full-time teaching load for faculty. So even though I am only adjunct (part-time), I carry what many school's would say is a full-time load. This is a bonus to me, if only on paper, in that it shows a prospective school that I have worked full-time at GCU rather than just as a part-time instructor. Moreover, in presenting or "framing" this information this way, I am showing a potential school that I have been working full-time as a professional educator. This is important because many schools select candidates based on their experience and will state in the job requisitions that candidates must have a track record of full-time teaching.

Lastly, GCU offers me opportunity to teach very large classes, from 25 to 95 students each semester. In many schools, the ability to manage large classes is a bonus. I can teach these large seminars now, and that is a huge factor in my ability to be hired by another school down the road.

Therefore, as I think about my experience at GCU, I have chosen to reframe my story, so to speak. Instead of saying that I am a part-time teacher, I have chosen to accept what is true about my status, and that is that I teach full-time (just without a full-time contract). I have also accepted the fact that while I may not be the "best teacher" GCU has seen, I am certainly not the worst. In fact, on my reviews, I always meet expectations. I used to think this was not "good enough" because in the corporate world that signified that you were a so-so employee, just average, but nothing special. Merit raises and other accolades were given to the exemplary employees so it was important to strive for this rank every single review period. In higher education, however, I realized that "meets expectations" means that you are doing everything right in the class room. You are a professional educator, meeting the requirements set forth in your contract. It is not about exceeding these expectations because your merit raise is not based on classroom performance, but on scholarship and other "outside the classroom" responsibilities.

By reframing my story from a view poor performance to excellent performance, I am able to see that I am doing a good job. What's more, by recognizing my status as full-time, this reminds me that while I don't have benefits and a long-term contract, I do have full-time teaching experience.

My Take-Away from Today

Really, my take away from today is simply this: the Lord has provided a path for me where I have been able to learn how to teach college classes. I had little experience, other than 1-1 teaching and training, and while I longed to be a "teacher," I always felt very inadequate and unprepared. I asked the Lord for a way to get "preparation and training," and the Lord provided a way for me. He opened a door at a teaching institution that supports, encourages, and trains educators. I have been in the GCU system for three years now, and while I would like the comfort of a full-time contract, I understand that I am still learning the ropes, so to speak. I am learning how to become a very good teacher, and well, that takes time and a lot of effort. Yes, the old saying that "those who can't do, teach" is incorrect. Teaching is one of the most difficult jobs I have ever attempted, and in truth, bad teachers are obvious right from the get-go. Good teachers are the same -- you can spot them right off -- right from the first 5 minutes in class.

I am a good teacher. I desire to be a great teacher. I am working hard to learn how to do that, but I also know that I won't be a great teacher overnight. No, it will take years of practice and dedication to teaching pedagogy. I have to become a subject matter expert in my field so that I can teach my students well. It is not just about style and performance, something I was hung up on for a very long time, but about diligence and faithfulness to the subject. I have to teach my students how to write, that is my job, but how I do that is not more important then the content I use to do it. What I mean is this, I thought initially that teaching writing was easy. I thought because I am such a good writer, I could just instill my practices into my students and they would succeed. I am a great tutor at writing. I am a very good editor of writing. Yet, these practices are very 1-on-1. I can help students in this way, but in the classroom, in front of 35-95 students, well my approach has to be different and that is where subject matter content comes into play. I cannot just assume they will get it. I have to show them how to get what I am saying. I have to lead them. I have to setup my process in such a way that I lead them right to the finished product. My students want to be shown how to write well. They want to learn how to be a better writer, but very few of them are willing to put forth the effort to engage in this kind of study. So my class content must take them by the hand and lead them through the process of writing a good academic essay.

I have struggled with this process. I have focused so much on my performance and production that I have overlooked the "way" I am leading them, the actual path I am laying out for them to follow. I realize now that I must mark the path with clear markers so that my students will not miss the signs. I want them to learn well so that they will take what they learn in my class and carry it through to all their other classes. This has always been my goal, but I have struggled to figure out how to do that, how to be a leader, rather than a producer.

Consequently, my perspective on teaching was way off the mark all this time. I failed to recognize my skill, my ability, and my experience as a teacher. I failed to acknowledge that I know my subject well, and as such, I failed to lead my students through the process with expertise. I am not saying that I have everything figured out just yet; but I am saying that I am well on my way to figuring it out. In fact, I would say that in 5-6 more years, I will be able to say that I am a fine teacher, a strong subject matter expert, and that my students learn how to write well by being part of my class. My hope is that this is so or will be so. I believe it is possible, I believe it is the outcome I am working toward, and I am confident to know that this is the path the Lord has chosen for me to follow this day.

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