November 10th, 2014

Climbing the Stairs: Observations on a Teaching Career


My office is on the first floor of the education building. I have spent 27 years in this building. Unless I have a meeting in another department, I rarely go upstairs. Recently, however, I started a daily routine of climbing the four sets of staircases in the building. Trying to slow the progression of osteoporosis in my right hip, I go up one set and down another three times as I make my way around the building. This physical activity has given me a chance to engage in some mental reflection. Here I will briefly share five observations on a career spent teaching in higher education with an eye toward encouraging newer faculty to achieve longevity in the profession.

1. Adaptability is key.

On the first day of stair climbing, I passed by the classroom where I taught my very first class as a newly “hooded” faculty member. As I looked in the room, a smile came across my face as I thought of those thirty graduate students—most of whom were older than I was. While I remained at the university, they went on to become school principals, district superintendents, and curriculum coordinators. Seeing this classroom now made me think about the changes in my teaching. The large chalkboard once mounted on the wall is long gone. Even though I always liked using chalk (and had a special stainless steel holder for it), other tools have definitely replaced the infamous dust producer. Technology has been the greatest change in my delivery of instruction. Yet no matter what the innovation or new requirement (e.g., reporting assessment data, using iPads in the classroom, etc.), maintaining flexibility and being open to alternative approaches will serve faculty well over time.

2. Become resourceful.

As I walked the hallways, I noticed the office directories at the main entrance to each department. So familiar, these are easily ignored. Actually looking at them each day reminded me that people are the most valuable resource available to us as faculty. Whose expertise complements ours? Whose interests are similar to ours? With whom can we bounce off ideas for teaching a new class preparation?

Furthermore, a large part of being successful in any professional endeavor is knowledge of whom to call for which dilemma. Aging in the profession reinforces that knowing where to get help surpasses knowing all the answers. Sometimes teaching faculty must let pride subside and not hesitate to find out where to get assistance. As we seek out and use the multitudinous resources that surround us on a college campus, we can become more effective faculty members.

3. Connect across departments.

On my fifth day of stair climbing, I saw two colleagues from another department on the second floor. I had last seen them on campus the previous semester. From the brief hallway encounter, they asked me to help with a research project. Had I not been upstairs, this opportunity may have not been extended. My simple exercise strategy prompted me to realize (again) how isolation within one’s own department may stifle growth and development. This incident also reminded me of the need for faculty to be visible and available. On several other recent self-guided building tours, I have seen past and present students in the halls or on the stairs. This too strengthens our connections and enhances efficacy.

4. Be observant.

On each stairwell there are bulletin boards. Opportunities abound for campus involvement. In the deluge of email messages, it is easy to overlook some of these options that are available to us on campus. Even if not personally interested, sharing posted information with students is a possibility. Additionally, the content of stairwell bulletin boards contains significant clues about what is currently relevant to students. Flyers with information on upcoming comedy acts and anxiety support groups serve to remind us of the lives outside the classroom that our students lead. We can then incorporate this information into lesson planning and perhaps better reach students.

5. Take regular breaks.

The whole stair-climbing experience has reminded me of the importance of building in short breaks during the workday. After each stair climbing endeavor, I have returned to my office and computer in a more refreshed state of mind. I gained a new perspective on my work. As faculty we must try not to spend all our time in our office. Leave the building at lunch or mid-afternoon. Breaks offer a chance to recharge.

I believe that longevity for teaching faculty boils down to risk-taking and resilience. Be willing to try new things, say “yes” to opportunities, and aim to bounce back after disappointments. Taking these factors to heart, perhaps I could step it up a notch by enrolling in a tap dance class as a way to combat my deteriorating hip!

Now it’s your turn, please share your advice for maintaining instructional vitality throughout your career.

Patty H. Phelps, Professor, Teaching & Learning, University of Central Arkansas.

  • Dr.p.c. Hirsch

    I agree with this story by dr. Phelps. In my 25 year teaching career I also connected with others through joining committees like professional development and mentoring both of students and new faculty. When you share your knowledge with others it can be very rewarding. I was able to benefit from various programs and conferences I would never have heard of otherwise. My first one led me to use CATS techniques over the many years. (It is a quick assessment tool to find out where your students are holding in their learning.) it helped me become more creative in the classroom, giving students more opportunity to use their talents.
    Dr. P.c. Hirsch, professor emeritus of life sciences

  • mgchance

    Staying connected with adjuncts is very important. Often I find they feel disconnected from what's going on in the department and on campus. For many students, adjuncts are the face of the institution for which they teach, so it's important that adjuncts are just as involved and informed as full-time faculty in order to pass along to students important information and encourage involvement.

    • Patty Phelps

      Excellent reminder of including the often "forgotten faculty." You are absolutely correct that they serve a vital function at the university. Every full time faculty member should work adjunct at sometime during their career and remember that feeling of being on the margin at times. Thank you.

  • Subhashini Rajpuri

    I do agree with your observations, thanks for sharing your experience. May I ask Dr. P. C .Hirsch to help me learn more about CATS technique or from where can I get the application.

    • Subhashini,
      For more on CATS, I would recommend checking out Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers by Angelo & Cross. In addition, we ran an article on using CATs in the online classroom about a year ago. The article contains many good examples that could apply in F2F or online courses. Here is the link:

      Finally, I would recommend Googling Classroom Assessment Techniques. You will find plenty of helpful resources.

      Mary Bart
      Editor, Faculty Focus

  • Drew Wilcox

    I am in my 3rd year of teaching and found this very applicable! These small breaks have been very helpful when dealing with the frustrations of the classroom. This gives me the chance to relax and get a new perspective. The small lessons Dr Phelps shared I found very valuable in keeping that drive alive! The days can become monotonous if we don't find ways to engage with others.

    • Patty Phelps

      The years will fly past! Great reminder about the importance of engagement with others..face to face is even better. Thank you.

  • Muhammad Asif

    One more thing that I would like to share. While travelling to or from the campus, on the roads or in the market, assume for a while your position to be that of a shopkeeper, a laborer working there, or even a beggar. Put yourself in the foots of that person and think how life and the world looks like. All problems, priorities, issues change. This will give a feeling of reality of this life and helps in finding its real purpose, an out of the self feeling. Many regular thoughts become irrelevant, and many small and ignored matters may become prominent.

    • Muhammad Asif

      'In the shoes', not 'in the foots' sorry for error

      • Patty Phelps

        What a helpful insight! Thank you for sharing.

  • Christina Bilinski

    What a delightful article! These thoughts are appropriate to faculty, staff, and students alike. We zoom from class to class, task to task, activity to activity, and often now, do it all while texting, emailing, and talking on our phones. We have forgotten to be mindful, to enjoy and learn from our surroundings, to note how our bodies feel when they are moving and resting, to take some time to recognize the people, resources, and beauty that surrounds us. College/university campuses are among the most resource-filled environments, yet most of us take little advantage of the riches. Thanks for an article that reminds us to just literally and figuratively breathe.

    • Patty Phelps

      Thank YOU for capturing the essence of what I was sharing in your more eloquent way. Yes, just breathe, is sometimes such great advice.

  • Antonio Palenzuela

    Patty Phelps, Thank you for the nice article.

    • Patty Phelps

      Thank YOU, for taking the time to read it and to reply.

  • Hema Desai

    Thanks Dr.Phelps for sharing such a rich experience.Truly said,more opportunities come form face to face encounters.
    It also helps develop inter professional collaboration

    • Patty Phelps

      Thank YOU for taking the time to read and to respond.

  • Mary Vandendorpe

    Great ideas!
    I would suggest that we all need to take time to listen to our students. What do they do outside of class? What music do they like? How stressed are they? Not only do we want to understand their experience, but their viewpoints can give us new insights …about our subject, about how we teach.

    • Patty Phelps

      Well said with your reminder! Thanks.

  • david wolfe

    if we listen to our students they will teach us how to teach them i miss teaching i had to retired due to a stroke i was rewarded with the professor emeritus status

  • Anetta

    It is interesting to experience the effects of physical activity on the mind and yes sharing ideas with others is well worth the while.
    I do agree that people are our greatest asset , unfortunately Dr. we often take them for granted, minimize them or we just fail to listen.

    Thanks for emerging from the fog of experience to share a refreshing perspective that can only benefit all.