Faculty Focus


Supporting Faculty in Uncertain Times: Five Ideas for Meaningful Dialogue and Reflection

Team of faculty working together during discussion

Most higher education professionals are familiar with Centers for Teaching and Learning (CTLs) found within their institutions. CTLs provide professional development opportunities and coaching for faculty members. According to Leiberman (2018), the purpose of CTLs is “to get faculty members thinking about improving their classes or in some cases, to meet faculty’s hunger for innovations they commence of their own accord.” Faculty members with prior teaching experience often have little trouble implementing new teaching strategies. But, those without teaching experience can find themselves overwhelmed at the prospect of building and cultivating a teaching practice. To that end, the five practices outlined in this article promote meaningful dialogue between faculty and CTLs.

We know active listening benefits educators. Engage in meaningful discussion. 

Meaningful discussions can uncover unique and shared experiences across an institution. Meaningful discussions can also uncover faculty motivations behind the adoption or resistance of specific teaching methods. In most instances, higher education institutions do not require faculty members to possess formal training in educational methodology, practice, or theory. Although faculty bring expertise in their field of study, many individuals are often unfamiliar with basic teaching practices and theory. More specifically, institutions expect faculty to teach students and learn about teaching methodology simultaneously. The prospect of learning about teaching while one is teaching can be overwhelming. Coaches and developers can engage in meaningful discussions to help decrease feelings of anxiety, worry, and concern. I present the following questions to foster meaningful dialogue between faculty members and faculty developers. Active listening is “one of the most important facilitation skills of educational developers” (Topornycky & Golparian, 2016, p. 175).

Reflection questions to ask faculty 

  • I know it can be a lot in a new position? How are you doing with everything? 
  • I recognize that teaching methodology and skills can be challenging if this is your first experience teaching. Some of the challenges that other peers in your position have faced are… Does that sound familiar to you? Have you had similar experiences? 
  • What was your most memorable learning experience as a student or a professional? 
  • What can you tell me about your teaching experiences thus far at this institution? How does it compare to your experience outside of higher education/or at your last institution?  
  • What about your teaching would you like to improve or change? 
  • Can you clarify what part of the teaching process you find most challenging? 
  • From your perspective, what needs to change about your current teaching and learning environments?

We know faculty can become overwhelmed. Start small and keep faculty burnout in mind.  

Many faculty members experience burnout early in their careers (Hollywood et al., 2020). Burnout is “a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion caused by long-term involvement in situations that are emotionally and psychologically demanding” (Harrison, 1999, p. 25). Faculty burnout is real. We discuss faculty burnout being an issue. But, we rarely discuss the negative consequences of faculty burnout when faculty are in the beginning stages of their career. 

CTLs often present a plethora of learning opportunities to faculty members. In some instances, CTLs provide hundreds of activities, methods, and technologies to enhance instruction. Other times, faculty get inundated with weekly and, in some cases, daily emails about “What’s new?” in the world of teaching. “Over-resourcing” or “too much information, too soon” can contribute to faculty burnout. As some faculty happily explore the abundance of resources provided by CTLs, others continually search for an adequate foundation for their teaching practice. 

Additionally, an abundance of resources tends to subvert the basic principles that are beneficial for emerging practitioners. Too many resources can lead instructors to adopt maladaptive teaching practices (teaching practices not based on theory or contextual practice). Maladaptive teaching practices are often associated with feelings of information “overload” and “isolation.” In 2014, Saga Briggs outlined 11 maladaptive teaching habits of both thoughts and behaviors that create a barrier between faculty members and personal growth. This continual search can contribute to feelings of anxiety and isolation. Overwhelmed faculty are less likely to adopt new practices because of the initial feelings of confusion, frustration, or fear. Lastly, a flurry of ideas and concepts can build resentment and resistance towards future professional development opportunities. 

Starting small can affirm the realities of faculty members with emerging teaching skills. Build trust between faculty members and their CTL. Faculty developers should contribute to the health and wellness of faculty members seeking professional development opportunities. Establishing a supportive environment that prioritizes burnout prevention can motivate more faculty to engage with their CTL services. Below is a brief sample of an exercise that can help identify faculty starting points. 

Select one.

  1. Delivery OR Content
  2. Culture OR Community
  3. Grading OR Un-grading
  4. Giving OR Gathering
  5. Reflection OR Reaction
  6. Policy OR Procedure

Faculty query questions:

  1. What is more important to you at this time in your career: the delivery of your content OR changes to your content?
  2. Which one of these terms resonates with you more: community or culture, and why? 
  3. On a scale of 1-10, how important is a student’s grade? Can you tell me more about the meaning behind the number you selected? 
  4. When you think of yourself teaching, do you see yourself giving students information or gathering information based on content or brief lecture?
  5. After your lecture, is it more likely students reflect on the content or react to the content? Why do you think that is? How might we use this to motivate and engage your students? 
  6. What is more important to you: policy or procedure, and why? 

We know about resistance to specific teaching methods like culturally responsive teaching. Use reflective dialogue to provide clarity and support.

Faculty members often discuss complexities associated with culturally responsive teaching. For instance, STEM professors in health science or engineering programs struggle to apply culturally responsive teaching. This is not to say all STEM faculty reject or ignore cultural responsiveness. The work of Michelle Pacanski Brock and Melissa Salazar are two examples of STEM faculty who understand the importance of humanizing and cultural responsiveness. 

Nevertheless, faculty commonly cite the inability to use culturally responsive teaching because doing so would impact program outcomes. Faculty have also noted that such changes will not align with accreditation and industry standards. In some cases, such an argument might be somewhat valid due to accreditation status and timing of desired changes. However, faculty use such statements to exclude cultural responsiveness in the classroom. In these instances, it is more beneficial to focus on culturally responsive delivery rather than the content itself. Below are sample statements for faculty who may be resistant to culturally responsive teaching.  

Sample faculty statements and responses:

Question 1:

Faculty: I have labs in my course. Students work together, and they have to accomplish specific tasks. The lab is 20% of the grade. Science is science…How would I make that culturally responsive???
Faculty Developer: It sounds like labs are an essential part of your course and tied to industry standards. It also sounds like an excellent opportunity for group work and collaborative learning. Is that right? How would you feel about looking at some culturally responsive teaching techniques that you can add to your small group and collaborative learning skill set, like your lab? Would you be interested in learning how to make your collaborative learning opportunities more culturally responsive rather than making changes to the process of the lab assignment itself?  

Question 2:

Faculty: I teach 250 students. I do not know what cultures they are most familiar with. How can I possibly be culturally responsive to each student?
Faculty Developer: That is an overwhelming thought when you have 250 students. Instead, you may want to focus on whole group instruction. That is, what has the most benefit for the group as a whole? Whole group instruction would include your delivery of content and the design of more than one assignment option that is culturally responsive but still meets your learning objectives and industry standards. Does that sound like something that might work for you? 

Question 3:

Faculty: I teach a variety of international students. They each come from different countries, none of which I am familiar with. How can I be culturally responsive with that many different types of students?
Faculty Developer: ELL professors are a wealth of knowledge. Have you considered reaching out to anyone in that department? If not, we can partner with them to develop more best practices for faculty members if we have not done so already. Additionally, we have a course on culturally responsive teaching that addresses this topic. I am happy to sign you up for one if you would like. 

Question 4:

Faculty: How can I know what students need if there is a language barrier?
Faculty Developer: Let’s try an exercise. Imagine that you are living in another country and you are developing language proficiency.  

  1. What might help you navigate in a classroom setting?  
  2. What would you need to be successful? What would you want the instructor to do for you? 
  3. Maybe include something like visuals, etc.?

We know that decisions about professional development are essential. Create exploratory goals before making decisions about professional development.

Decisions about professional development opportunities can have short and long-term implications for students’ experiences in higher education settings. Equipping faculty with the proper tools for best outcomes is a significant investment of time, relationship building, and financial capital. If you are not sure about the professional development, it will be more difficult to gain buy-in from your team. Increase your understanding of the professional development and support faculty buy-in by exploring the following questions: 

  • Before presenting new professional development concepts, how has the CTL supported faculty members in times of uncertainty? (Depending on the answer, you may want to provide self-care professional development first). 
  • What does this training accomplish for our faculty?  
  • What are the expectations for this professional development? 
  • What are the unique and shared experiences of faculty that can promote buying from faculty?
  • Is there previous training we have overlooked that we could refer to for guidance or examples and support future training decisions?

We know it takes a lot to support faculty. Be intentional. 

Unfortunately, many CTLs in the United States and internationally are departments of “one,” meaning only one person is assigned to manage and maintain the CTL. Smaller CTLs face the same challenges as CTL teams or departments, along with additional challenges. Working in groups or alone; be intentional about the how, why, and when’s of supporting faculty. If you are a department of one, make sure to reach out for support. You cannot do it all on your own. If you are on a team within a CTL, it may be time to conduct a skills or interests assessment to highlight or remind the team of the skills people bring to the team and how colleagues can better support faculty. Exploring and rediscovering team members’ passions about providing professional development may uncover new and innovative ways to provide professional development opportunities to instructional staff. 

People long for genuine human connection. This concept is grown more prevalent since emergency remote teaching took effect in 2020. Strengthening the relationship between faculty members and their CTLs is essential. Faculty developers can foster a greater sense of community by creating intentional and meaningful dialogue with the faculty they serve. Faculty developers can increase the quality and depth of conversations around faculty development and promote the health and wellness of faculty members and themselves through intentionality and healthy dialogue and reflection. 

Dr. Courtney Plotts is a certified/licensed school psychologist who writes and speaks about culturally responsive teaching and community building in online spaces. She has written two books on Latino and Black culture and online spaces. She is currently the National Chair of the Council For At Risk Student Education and Professional Standards. She has been recognized by the California State Legislature for A Bold Commitment to Change and Education. She offers workshops on topics related to building community, effective culturally responsive teaching, and best practices. Dr. Plotts’ work was highlighted in the book Small Teaching Online by Flower Darby.


Briggs, S. (2011, May, 14). Eleven major teaching mistakes to avoid. Informed Ed by Opencolleges.edu.au. https://www.opencolleges.edu.au/informed/

Harrison, B. J. (1999). Are you destined to burn out? Fund Raising Management, 30(3), 25–27.

Hollywood, A., McCarthy, D., Spencely, C., & Winston, N. (2020) Overwhelmed at first. The experience of career development in early academic careers. Journal of Further Higher Education, 44(7)998-1012.

Lieberman, M. (2018). Center of the pedagogical universe. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/article/2018/02/28/centers-teaching-and-learning-serve-hub-improving-teaching

Topornycky, J. & Golparian, S. (2016). Balancing openness and interpretation in active listing. Collected Essays on Learning and Teaching, 9, p. 175-184.