July 17, 2013

Remembering Our Mission to Teach

By: in Philosophy of Teaching

Have you ever become so frustrated with students and overwhelmed by your workload that you start questioning what you are doing? At times it can feel suffocating. Baruti Kafele, an educator and motivational speaker offers a perspective of being mission oriented to educators and others working with young people in our nation’s classrooms. He suggests affirming your goals and motivations to facilitate successes among students. However, in the college classroom, it is also essential that we, as faculty members, remember and affirm our purpose, acknowledge the contributions we make in students’ lives and professional pursuits, and respect the call or passion that brought each of us to the teaching profession.

What is Mission Oriented?
In this context, mission orientation acknowledges how faculty members serve, impact, and influence the lives of others. It begs to question: How do faculty members, energize, reignite, and in some instances, recapture that which motivates our work with students? What contributions are we making to the lives of the students we teach? Have we become derailed from the mission to contribute to others in a profound and significant way? And, if so, how do we get back on track?

It is in the spirit of mission orientation that we offer in this article two contributions faculty members should consider—thinking deeply and building relationships. Both contributions represent and respect a mission to teach and influence the lives of others.

Teaching and Thinking
Teaching and thinking are paramount to the mission. However, it’s not just teaching students the content; it’s helping students think deeply about the content that is most impactful. Faculty members are invested in, and passionate about, their content. We seize upon opportunities to impart knowledge to, and share their passion for, the discipline with our students. We plan activities and exercises to help students apply the content in a real world context. Faculty members comb the Internet, attend conferences, and read professional literature to enhance our expertise. We do all of this to ensure students have a deep and rich pool of knowledge in which to swim.

Processing all of this new information often causes moments of cognitive dissonance for many students. Faculty members engage in discussions that require students to reflect, analyze, and synthesize information in a larger context. As students begin to value and organize this new information, old schemes of thinking are challenged, deepened, or replaced. The freefalling emotionality of thinking can create uncertainty and discomfort for students. As Henry Ford said, “Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is the probable reason why so few engage in it.” However, it is that cognitive dissonance which supports a deepening of students’ thinking. Affording students opportunities to think deeply about the information shared in college classrooms greatly contributes to the mission of helping students find successes in their personal and professional pursuits. Certainly, teaching students to think deeply about their course content is arguably one of the most important contributions we make. However, there is another contribution that has the potential to impact students’ lives in a real and significant way—relationship building.

Building Relationships with Students
When faculty members create quality relationships with their students, it becomes a bridge between the faculty member and student to confer, collaborate, and communicate. For example, it provides a path for faculty members to support students’ disposition development for learning and life. It helps faculty members advocate for students’ needs, and it creates a space to learn who our students are—their backgrounds, cultures, and personalities.

It also can cushion the impact when we have to engage in difficult conversations with students, or serve as a catalyst when we want to recognize students who have distinguished themselves in an exceptional way. Through the relationships that we create with the students, various avenues open and honest conversations emerge about the student’s needs, struggles, successes, and triumphs. It also allows for faculty members and students to strategize together how best to bolster the successes and address challenges.

Modeling relationship-building strategies contributes to the mission of helping students find successes in all aspects of their lives. Students can use the strategies they learned from faculty as a skill later in life to build relationships with others. As a part of the contribution, it is important for the faculty member to model and equip students with not only the content knowledge of their discipline, but also the skills to see other perspectives and seek opportunities to help others find success, as they have. Building healthy and meaningful relationships with students provides powerful opportunities to impact their lives, and hopefully, the student will pay it forward.

In conclusion, helping students think deeply and building quality relationships are certainly not the only contributions faculty make to the mission. But, they do stand as two pillars rooted in the foundation of the mission to teach and influence lives. As we remind ourselves of this purpose, we must also remember and reflect on the contributions we make to the mission, the many students whose lives are impacted, and the unique gifts we offer. Remembering the contributions to the mission of teaching can be energizing and uplifting, and may help answer that question, “What am I doing here?” Hopefully, the answer is, “I am here to teach and influence the life and professional pursuits of the students I work with every day!”

Dr. Candice Dowd Barnes is an assistant professor at the University of Central Arkansas. Dr. Patricia Kohler-Evans is an associate professor at University of Central Arkansas.

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Comments

T Day | July 17, 2013

I think it's exceptionally hard to cling to the real mission in the for-profit world where the institutional mission is overwhelmingly aimed at making money, regardless of the cost (in every way) to students or faculty. I would put this at the top of the reasons for faculty burnout.

rja | July 17, 2013

Amen. for sure in for-profits; to some degree in public schools as well (depending on the mission of the public…) no wonder some disciplines are screaming for faculty.

Burned Out | July 17, 2013

I agree with you wholeheartedly, T Day. The institution I currently work at, Trident Technical College, primarily seems to care about making money. This has led to my burnout and recent resignation.

In Agreement | July 17, 2013

As the college I work for cut staff, we who were left shouldered more and more non-teaching responsibilities. I felt burned out and my students were very unhappy with me as a teacher. Last fall,I consciously decreased what I agreed to do besides teaching. My students were much more satisfied as was I. I am still trying to make teaching my #1 priority. This article validates my feelings.

Paul T. Corrigan | July 17, 2013

Three good points, about remembering our purpose, engaging students in deep thinking, and developing relationships students. I would be curious about what the writers or other readers would suggest in the way of strategies or practices for doing these.

Of the three, the relationships one seems the most (for lack of a better word) "tricky." Perhaps some folks would be willing to offer some further input in this or point us to existing resources that say more.

It seems to me like a lot of talk about this takes the form of unspecific encouragements to develop relationships and more specific warnings about making sure to be friendly but not friends, etc., and to maintain the boundaries between teacher and students. The former is important but not always as helpful in terms of practice as it could be. The latter is, well, probably important but sort of a trivial level of discussion (along the lines of "how to dress appropriately"). What are some meaningful and concrete practices for developing relationships with students? What are some models? Meet them outside of class, say, for lunch? And should we develop relationships of this sort with all students? Just some? Or are the relationships limited to the classroom and being related and relatable a mode of teaching and carrying oneself?

At any rate, these are some questions I have.

Thanks for these encouragements.


Paul T. Corrigan
Teaching & Learning in Higher Ed.

Gordon McAlister | July 17, 2013

Hello Paul, good questions, getting right down to it. Here are a few things that the research and my personal experience provide as some answers. The biggest thing is to realize the relationship matters. It accounts for about 1/4 to 1/3 of the learning variable. Just decide it matters, and you'll start doing things to build relationship and rapport. Here are some other specifics, some obvious, smile, use a little humor, help students relax. Communicate that you care about student success. Call students by their first name, give them permission to call you by your first name – not all will take it, but just giving it sends a good signal. Take time to pursue issues they bring up, even when they are off course topic – balanced with not going too far off track for too long. Share a little of what's going on in your life, no need to go overboard. I'd also be a little cautious with the meetings outside the course, that can start to feel too social. The goal is to come across with a balance between professional, friendly, caring, knowledgeable, and clear about roles or boundaries. The frame of mind we are trying to support in students is "relaxed alertness."

Paul T. Corrigan | July 17, 2013

What a helpful comment, Gordon. This was just the sort of information I was looking for.

You wouldn't happen to have some citations readily available to share, would you? I'd be particularly interested in knowing more about that 1/4 to 1/3 number.


Paul T. Corrigan
Teaching & Learning in Higher Ed.

Tim Michael | July 17, 2013

Excellent post, especially the part about modelling interactions and relationships. One of the reasons we see such friction between younger students and the job market (and between younger students and faculty) is because no one has taken the time to engage them on important issues such as professionalism.

John Thomson | July 18, 2013

This is an important point. I have had the benefit of having been a teacher in a high school and a Brigadier in the United Kingdoms reserve forces, in my last job being responsible for our Army Reserve or Territorial Army as it has been known in the UK. As such I have benefitted from both academic qualification and military training.

I am very clear that teaching is a very important branch of leadership and if you view it that way Mission Oriented approaches fall into place. It is, however, important to understand that Mission Oriented approaches are only one part of the cycle and need to be considered alongside Mission Analysis and what might be termed 'Educational Analysis'. In my early training as a young instructor I was introduced to the phrase 'Promotion and Maintenance of the Desire to Learn'. An important start point for any teacher in schools today.

The important issue is to consider individual outcomes for your students which, when coupled with your clear Mission Statement, identifies an individual learning/teaching strategy for all students in the group. This approach helps you as the teacher from time to time to take stock of where you are on the learning journey. The approach also ensures that the students themselves are connected to the 'Main Effort' and therefore take a full and active part in their own education instead of simply being topped up with education which many will experience a deep feeling of disconnect to.

So I agree with this article wholeheartedly and would hope that articles such as this will bring about a fundemental change in the way we train our teachers in the future – to teach with understanding as the Main Effort and not to focus on the examination pass rate as a fundemental approach. This is where the exciting challenge exists for teachers.

J A J Thomson OBE QVRM TD DL RCDS

@Saads12 | July 19, 2013

You have hit the nail on the head. Administration's goals differ from those of their faculties. It is all about the money and it is the staff which suffers.


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