I Took a Year Away from the Corporate World to Teach. Here’s What I learned.
As a professional communicator and marketer, I have successfully applied my skills to everything from pancakes to non-profits. Last year I decided to see what I could do to make a lasting and positive impact on a broader scale, so I took a year away to teach at a local university. My classes included public relations, advertising management, digital and social media, and supervising the student-led communications agency that worked with local businesses to improve their marketing.
That year is now up, and I have to say it was one of the most profound and meaningful experiences I’ve had. I’d like to share what I learned from teaching, both the delights and the disappointments.
Basic English skills are lacking.
While most students were bright and eager to learn, many more were lacking in basic English abilities. Some students were naturally talented writers, but way too many were deficient in the basics, including understanding the difference between passive and active voice, subject/verb agreement, sentence structure, verb/tense agreement, and vocabulary.
When speaking with these students a common theme emerged. None of them had been taught these skills in their high schools. A comprehensive English proficiency test upon entering university followed by intensive remedial help before moving into mainstream coursework should be mandatory. Anything less is setting these students up to fail – either in their classes or afterward in the professional workforce.
This isn’t an issue confined to any one campus. I’ve taught occasionally at other universities and encountered the same challenge.
Students want honest, direct and critical feedback.
I had high expectations of students driven by a genuine desire to see them succeed. Students understood I was genuinely invested in their success, and that required some unvarnished feedback. The result was a learning environment where they could expect a high bar along with coaching to help them meet the challenge. I also encouraged respectful, vigorous debate (including with me) in the classroom. This led to some great engagement and deeper understanding on everyone’s part.
Students began to anticipate honest, direct feedback. As one said to me, “We can choose easy courses, but when we want to learn the material, we sign up for your classes.” Through our discussion students understood the only way to improve is through critique, and I’m not doing them any favors by glossing over sub-par work. Once after a particularly rough week, I gave everyone a pass on an assignment. To my surprise (and delight) a couple of students asked me to take a more critical look at their work and provide more suggestions for improvement. These weren’t the overachievers, either. They were journeyman students who wanted some real feedback and ways to improve their game. As a teacher that’s about as good as it gets.
If students perceive you are passionate about their success and interested in them as individuals, they will respond positively. And reciprocate. I believe that’s true of students, employees and anyone in your life.
Being a college instructor used to be an honored profession – it’s now been reduced to a gig.
According to a recent report by the American Association of University Professors approximately half of all faculty in the United States and over 70% of non-tenure track (NTT) roles are “contingent” instructors, sometimes euphemistically designated “adjunct faculty.”
These contingent positions are assigned on a term-by-term basis, or if you’re very lucky by academic year, with no guarantee of renewal. Let’s call it what it is – we’re educating the next generation with temp workers.
Moreover, many of these contracts are for only one or two courses per term, which leaves anyone who wishes to dedicate their career to the noble cause of teaching to try and piece together a living at multiple institutions or seek part-time work outside of the profession.
In higher educational institutions students are buying an education. The quality of that education depends directly on the quality of the instruction. As Trever Griffey wrote on this issue in an article on lawcha.org, because “contracts may be renewed at their employers’ discretion, instructors’ contingency translates into a lived experience of dependency and perpetual anxiety.” This also gives rise to an entire class of itinerant instructors forced to constantly migrate between institutions. It’s simply not sustainable in the long term, and good instructors leave the field for more secure careers.
I’ve heard all sides of this argument for a multi-tier higher educational workforce, most of which have some merit. But at the end of the day, the only thing we should care about is providing students with the best possible education and chance at success. I wish I had a handy solution, but I don’t.
I was not prepared for the deep connections I would forge with my students.
I would hope that I’ve managed to touch a few lives with my focus on career success and individual achievement, not just grades. Having students respond to this commitment and to watch their own sense of selves grow was wonderful. Even more of a privilege was getting to know these intelligent and diverse individuals so full of promise. Their reciprocation of caring and commitment was truly moving.
Thanks to LinkedIn and other social media I look forward to following their careers and journeys through life, and I’m always honored to be used as a reference.
I wouldn’t trade the experiences and connections I developed over last year for any amount of corporate largesse. I’m so impressed with the students I’ve taught and the dedicated colleagues I worked alongside. It’s been a real renewal and a fount of warmth I’ll always carry with me.