Six Ways to Improve Your Department’s Teaching Climate

In the same way a classroom’s climate is created jointly by teacher and student actions, a department’s teaching climate results from collective contributions. Of course, department chairs and other administrators play key leadership roles, but they alone are not responsible for creating the teaching climate. We all contribute by what we say and do regarding teaching. Sometimes we say and do nothing, and this too becomes part of the culture.

Teaching Professor Blog Academics lead busy lives, and our first teaching priority must be what we do in our courses. Good teaching takes time, and it does make a positive contribution to the climate within a department. Do we have a responsibility to do more? That’s probably a decision best made individually. Sometimes we are willing to do more but are bereft of ideas. I can help on that front. Here are some actions that can advance the teaching and learning agenda. Please feel free to add to the list.

  • Regularly season talk about teaching and learning with good ideas, information, and evidence. Just a pinch of salt can really enhance how something tastes. Maybe it’s a pithy quote, a research finding, a provocative question, or a pedagogical reading recommendation that is shared online, posted in a prominent place, or tacked onto the department meeting agenda.
  • Suggest teaching and learning topics for department meetings. Concentrate on short topics, a 10-minute discussion of the pros and cons of extra credit, the criteria folks are using to grade participation, in-class activities that develop critical thinking skills, or good ways to handle conversations with students about a challenged grade. There are all sorts of possibilities.
  • Convene a reading group. Don’t make it a big bunch of work. Suggest meeting once a month, and be sure to distribute a short, provocative reading beforehand. If you regularly read Faculty Focus or the Teaching Professor newsletter, you’ve got a good source of material right at your fingertips (pardon the biased opinion). Get a list of those interested in attending, and extend an invitation. Go with who shows up. Don’t measure success by how many attend but by the quality of the interaction. Be the convener and point person for one semester. Then, if the group wants to continue, let others step up.
  • Pick an issue, and advocate for it. Say the only student feedback faculty get is from end-of-course ratings that offer global assessments. Advocate for departmentally sanctioned mid-course evaluations that focus on formative feedback. Alternatively, you could propose a different kind of first-year experience for new faculty—one with a reduced teaching load, more careful consideration of initial teaching assignments, departmentally endorsed mentoring, and instructional observation opportunities. If the only teaching awards are university-wide ones, encourage the department to consider alternatives. These could include an advising award, a teaching with technology award, recognition for those who teach large service courses, or an award whose focus changes each year.
  • Find collaborators who are willing to do more than complain about students or the departmental or institutional teaching climate. Support each other’s efforts in the classroom, and then take it a step further—actively advocate for change. Two or three voices are easier to hear and are harder to ignore than one.
  • Propose meaningful ways to assess the teaching potential of job candidates. Teaching philosophy statements written for search committees tend to describe what candidates think they need to say to get the job. Research presentations don’t clearly represent teaching practices. Have the search committee and invited students ask the candidate to respond to specific instructional scenarios:
    • “Students are regularly checking social media, not giving you or fellow classmates their full, undivided attention. What would you do?”
    • “You receive an email from a student saying she is afraid of participating in class. She asks you to please not call on her. Would you honor her request?”
    • “The class has done poorly on an exam. Students ask for an extra credit assignment. Would you provide one? Why or why not? If so, what would you have them do?”

    We tend to believe not much can be accomplished without a big time commitment—without having to sign up to do something for the foreseeable future. Departmental climate is the confluence of many small actions, a few large ones, and, yes, a lot of inaction. Is teaching taken for granted in your department? Saying it matters doesn’t mean it’s true. Actions that improve the climate for teaching and learning can and should be undertaken by everyone. Could that mean you need to do more? How will you (or do you) work to improve the climate in your department?