A Year in Review

by Kyle Hickman 

For those who are not very familiar with my current position, I just finished up my first year at Texas A&M University-Commerce as a graduate assistant in the Leadership Engagement & Development department. Among other responsibilities, I was fortunate enough to work alongside other members of my department to teach our First Year Leadership Class. Comprised of 25 freshmen students, the class introduces some of the basic concepts of leadership, helps students explore their strengths/values/emotional intelligence, introduces the idea of servant leadership, discusses various topics in social justice, and creates a family environment that encourages personal growth and exploration. For more information on the class, you can head to our Website or our Facebook page for photos of FLC doing amazing things.

Obviously, the purpose of the class is to help these students grow into the young men and women they have the potential to be. At the same time, I learned an immense amount of information about myself, my teaching style, how to best collaborate with colleagues, and how to lead a college classroom. Since it would be considered poor form to not ask our students to reflect upon their own classroom experiences, I thought this would be a great opportunity to reflect upon some things I learned inside the classroom this past year. Not to mention, reading McKeachie’s (2011), “Teaching Tips” has motivated me to reflect upon some of the things that went very well, along with a few ways to improve the classroom environment. My observations:

  1. Every teacher or professor always looks for the chance to get immediate feedback on the progress of a particular class period. After explaining a topic, I would routinely ask, “…Did that make sense? Do I need to rephrase that for anyone?” I do this for multiple reasons, including allowing the class a chance to fill in any blanks that I might have missed. Yet, many of today’s students perceive it as taboo to challenge the teacher or expert in class. Therefore, even when the topic might not have made sense, students will not speak up because they don’t want to be disrespectful. When this happens, it’s very difficult to get a grasp on the effectiveness of your teaching. To alleviate this from happening in the future, I will do my best to create a culture from the beginning that encourages healthy evaluation and criticism of all ideas, regardless of who delivers them.
  2. Autonomy is incredibly important. Students want to feel like they have a say in the direction of their education. Therefore, it is constructive to offer assignments with some structured flexibility. For example, instead of assigning two papers at predetermined times in the syllabus, it can be useful to offer the same two papers for three different dates of completion. As it is explained in McKeachie (2011), a good educator understands that students have other classes and commitments and it is helpful to allow enough flexibility to give students more autonomy over their education.
  3. For this next description, I will start with an example from my childhood. When I was in elementary school, those close to me made a very critical mistake when it came to my education: they anointed me with phrases of endearment about my level of excellence in class. For example, people would tell me how smart I was in a various array of subjects. Consequently, I felt this unrelenting social pressure to hold myself to that standard of excellence throughout my education, no matter the cost to my own growth or integrity. Therefore, as I grew up, instead of being willing to learn at the deepest level and fail many times along the way, I was much more concerned with the grade and how others viewed me. I had to uphold the image of being ‘the smart kid.’ Being able to reflect upon my childhood and see how this negatively affected my motivations, it has helped me be cognizant of how to not label the students I work with. If a student does well in a class, instead of telling them they are “really smart” at a particular subject, I will do my best to reward and/or recognize their effort, which will hopefully lead to further intellectual pursuits, rather than simply upholding an image for the grade. I see this as much more constructive, especially considering how it affected me when I was younger.
  4. At the beginning of the school year, I found myself in the routine of trying to summarize a class period by asking the group to write their “A-Ha” moments on the board. Although this was helpful for putting a bow on the topic for the day, I’m not sure I prepared the class for the topic beforehand. Of course, I would have an outline for myself, including prompts for a topic, some minor elaboration, videos & other media, and transition cues. As I reflect on the year, it would have been very helpful to provide an outline of each class period for the students as they walked into the Whitley classroom. It would only include the basic topics, helping them follow along and giving them a space to take notes. Transparency is the operative term here.
  5. If you know me well, it is no secret that I take the same approach to teaching in the classroom, speaking, or facilitating: humor is a significant part of the experience. From my experiences with educators, the ones that missed making an impact never seemed to be able to relate to the students or they were always far too professional/serious to be likable. I am lucky enough to have a personality that keeps things light and fun, but sometimes, that can be a deterrent to intense or serious topics. More than anything else, I have learned how to harness my personality and humor, suspending them at certain points to achieve a goal that may require a more serious approach. Plus, I have had to be very careful about showing too much of my relaxed side at the beginning of my time with students because that first impression sets a lasting tone which becomes difficult to re-brand. I’ve learned to find a happy medium which still allows me to remain relatable, while demanding the respect of the students.
  6. I have been lucky enough to remain active as a facilitator for a number of leadership programs throughout the past four years (including a few great opportunities later this month). One can take away a number of great skills for working with a small group by involvement in this type of experience. One of those skills involves handling the clashing opinions of members within a group, which can lead to significant tension and awkwardness. Luckily, I have picked up a few tips here and there to keep the situation from getting out of hand. Despite this on-the-job training, the FLC class found themselves discussing some controversial topics from time to time. As an educator, it is always difficult to separate my own personal perspectives/opinions from the overall goal: helping the students achieve their own level of growth on a topic. “Your objective is to start discussion; not smother it” (McKeachie, 2011).
  7. Finally, in a classroom structure that is heavily dependent upon group discussion, I have grown to become comfortable with one simple reality: all contributions, regardless of their absurdity, must be nurtured and accepted! Once you downplay the input of a student, it creates a culture of distrust and they are now less likely to contribute down the road. Although it can be frustrating, every educator needs to understand that each student moves at their own pace and learning outcomes may not always be reached during the time allotted.

Student Affairs - the First Years

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