Once On-the-Job Now in the Classroom: An Educator's Journey
Developing High-Quality Instructional Practices
When new faculty begin working at WCTC, they bring years of field experience to their roles as technical college instructors. They are masters of their craft, and they have the comprehensive knowledge and skillsets to prove it. What many don’t have, however, is teaching experience at the post-secondary level – and nationwide, few college instructors do.
"In this environment, we care that they have relevant experience in accounting, in HVAC, in welding," said Brad Piazza, Ph.D., WCTC’s vice president of Learning. "Now, we have to get them ready for the classroom."
Most colleges and universities do offer some type of preparation for faculty, but WCTC has an intense, yearlong requirement for new, full-time instructors that delves deep into how instructors teach, and that process is called the Journey.
Preparing Professionals to Become Instructors
The Journey is a professional learning experience that focuses on high-quality instructional practices for faculty. It is designed to orient new faculty into their academic career, and it uses a research-based pedagogical (relating to the art and science of teaching) framework to strengthen instructor efficacy, translating to better teaching and greater student success.
Those in the training meet for seven rigorous days in the summer prior to the start of the school year and complete exercises and activities that focus on a variety of distinct learning concepts. New faculty are also matched with mentors – who are experienced WCTC instructors – to provide guidance and support throughout the academic year. Follow-up large group meetings are scheduled monthly for Journey participants to report on techniques and strategies implemented in their classes, as well as deepen their knowledge and understanding of concepts from previous sessions; new content is also presented. Regular mentor/mentee meetings serve as an outlet to discuss what is working in the classroom and what could be improved upon, along with follow-up from the large-group sessions.
This year, 15 instructors and 10 staff are enrolled in the program, said Jennifer Fontanini, facilitator, and associate dean of Communication Skills and Social Science, noting this is the first year the training has also welcomed veteran instructors and staff.
"This strengthens the College’s culture of pedagogy," she said. "It’s all of our responsibilities across campus to understand our trade of teaching."
Additionally, plans are in the works to expand the Journey beyond WCTC in the coming years and make it available to other educational institutions throughout the state, country
The Beginning of the Journey
Prior to the start of the Journey, which was piloted in 2011 within the School of Business, new faculty completed a short boot camp. Sessions touched on a variety of teaching-related topics, but none of them in depth, Piazza said. Boot camps were generally two days, immediately followed by new employee orientation and the start of classes. "There was literally no time to work with faculty and get them acclimated to their new profession," he said.
That same year, College leaders gathered input from different WCTC groups regarding issues relating to student retention, along with what constitutes the ideal learning environment. What emerged was the need for professional and instructional improvement practices, and for the 2012-13 year, the Journey was expanded College wide.
Debbie Gahr, who participated and facilitated the training in its early years, said it helped her transition from certified public accountant to instructor.
"I knew my technical material, but I didn’t know how to teach. Sure, I can spit out all kinds of accounting rules, but that’s not the best way students learn," she said. "What the Journey focused on was helping us take our content knowledge and learn different ways to help students learn it and master it... Whether (instructors) teach in Welding or IT or Culinary, the principles of teaching remain the same."
‘Laser-Focused’ on Teaching
Over time, Journey leaders have refined the program’s content to best suit participants’ needs. Early iterations included more information from different areas of the College, but the current version is ‘laser-focused’ on teaching, said Bethany Leonard, facilitator, and dean of the School of Academic Foundations and General Studies.
"I think one of the key features of the Journey is that every single session we deliver is, to the best of our ability, the highest quality representation of effective teaching that we can present," she said.
In learning how to be better instructors, participants become actively involved in hands-on exercises, said Linda Gordy, facilitator, and associate dean of College and Career Readiness.
"Just about every piece of content that we present has some kind of engagement – whether it’s getting up and moving, creating charts and graphs, or talking things over with one another," Gordy said, adding that activities help educators put themselves in the place of the student.
Confidence in the Classroom
Fire and EMS instructor Mike Jones, a retired assistant fire chief for the Milwaukee Fire Department (MFD), completed the Journey and is now a mentor. During his time at the MFD, he on-boarded hundreds of employees and knew how to convey the rules, procedures and standard operating guidelines to them – all skills he thought were transferable to student success. To some extent, he said, they were, but upon starting in academia, he realized he needed to learn specifics about articulating content to students to ensure their success.
"The Journey team really puts together an engaging program, sharing the resources that we need to reach our students and get them to that 'aha moment'," he said. "Instructors bring expertise within their trade; this provides us with the fundamentals to teach."
Jessica Donahue, a new Surgical Technology instructor, and Todd Lewis, a longtime Sociology instructor – who are both being mentored by Jones – said the Journey is encouraging them to try new approaches in their classes while also building their confidence.
"A veteran teacher doesn’t have all the answers," Lewis said. "And the best part about teaching is learning."
Added Donahue: "With the Journey and my mentor team, I know that I am well-equipped to be able to have all the necessary tools to deliver quality instruction to my students. Thank you for the Journey. It’s a great way the College lives out its mission out loud."