Center Helps Teachers In Teaching

July 31, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — The Center for Teaching and Learning at Grand Rapids Community College can help instructors expand and improve their teaching techniques to help their students be better learners.

Its purpose is to improve the college’s practice of teaching by providing learning opportunities for its 250 full-time instructors and about 300 adjunct instructors, said Frank Conner, the center’s director.

That involves everything from individual learning styles to the physical classroom environment to how to build a better syllabus.

The center provided assistance to 280 faculty members in the course of the 2001 – 2002 academic year, Conner noted. 

Faculty members can attend seminars covering such topics as use of multimedia and technology in the classroom and putting together syllabi.

An instructor also can seek one-on-one consulting at the center if he or she has a specific issue or problem that crops up in a class. 

Becoming a good teacher requires more than just skills, Conner said.

The bigger picture is building an environment that focuses on learning, and that happens at the institutional level. 

At the heart of the center is the understanding that teaching and learning is a holistic process.

The vocation of teaching has an emotional as well as technical element to it, Conner explained, and the center seeks to find that balance in providing skill building along with opportunities for personal and critical reflection.

“That’s really very important, along with understanding that you can train faculty all you want but if the system doesn’t support their work, they’re not going to be productive.

“When we look at our work, while a big chunk of it is what we would call faculty development or curriculum development, it’s also about working at the systems level at the college — working with the academic deans, student services and other areas — so we can figure out how we can best design systems that provide a good learning environment for students,” he said.

“We’re really about working with everyone at the college to help them understand what teaching and learning requires and how we can help our students.”

As an example, the college has a learning environments team working through the center that looks specifically at the physical environment in which students can learn.  

Another big part of good teaching is just knowing who you are and what you believe, Conner said.

That means helping faculty understand and clearly articulate what they believe about teaching and learning — the “who they are and what brought them to the discipline,” he said.

“That personal and critical reflection is really important for a faculty member to engage in those activities so he or she really understands at a deep level why he or she really understands at a deep level why they’re doing this work.

“Then there’s the technical piece: How do you present material given the variety of learning styles and how do you present material that meets the diversity of our student population, which has everything from an 18 year old to a 70 year old.”

Another part of good teaching is connecting to students to find out what brings them to the classroom.

“For somebody to learn, whatever you’re trying to teach them has to make sense; it has to fit into their lives. So how do you direct the content or your discipline to the student’s interests?”

The center provides faculty with resources, consulting, classes, and training in updating curriculum. It also can offer them help with their faculty evaluations.

Five faculty members are staff to the center, which is fully funded through the college. Other faculty from GRCC’s academic foundations program, its assessment program and its diversity center, work with the center and provide input as well.

With its own offices and training room, the center is a space where faculty can relax, think about their practice and come together with others to talk about their work, Conner said.

They can talk about the different ways they teach, or about classroom problems, and bounce ideas off one another.

That “community building” is very important to the college and its faculty, he added. 

The center was established under the direction of Juan Olivarez, GRCC President since 1999. It was Olivarez’s initiative, Conner said.

“Dr. Olivarez can be very much credited with keeping teaching and learning at the forefront of the college and understanding that’s why we’re here: To provide a good holistic learning environment for all people that live in our community.”   

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