As the executive director of the Diversity Center, I wear several hats. I am an administrator, adviser, trainer and instructor. I also serve as a cheerleader and an advocate for diversity and inclusion. The work of my department is explained on our webpage at http://diversity.luther.edu. Although I am primarily responsible for the team dedicated to helping everyone improve the climate for diversity on campus, I also have a small teaching load. Because I don't get to talk about my teaching, I'm happy to devote this blog to my thoughts on the topic.
Teaching believes in students
The greatest contribution to teaching that any of us can make is to believe in our students. A fairly recent story, when I was with my daughter in a restaurant in Iowa City, brings this commitment to light. As my daughter and I walked up to the counter to pay our bill, a young woman standing in line in front of our family turned and looked at me. She smiled and said, "I know you!" She was so excited that she was almost shouting! Startled, I said nothing but she kept talking, you taught a Black Studies course at the University of Illinois in the mid-1980s. I nodded and then she said, "You were my professor!"
Most instructors have had this experience. Students often remember us, for better or worse. But this was the first time I had one of my adult children present when a former student gave an impromptu testimonial, so I asked her to remind me of her name and nudged my daughter forward. It was during the daughter-former student conversation that we learned something exciting. Both of these African-American women were academics. Bridgette is an associate professor in English and Africana Studies at the University of Iowa. My daughter was at U of I interviewing for a post-doc at the Medical School. Of course, I was proud of the small role I played in both women's successes but I didn't expect to hear what Bridgette said next. To explain why she remembered me so vividly, she recounted an incident in my classroom. She said that she was scheduled to do a presentation on one of our assigned books. She admitted that she was unprepared and reminded me that I called her on it. According to her account, I politely interrupted her and rescheduled the presentation. Apparently, I simply said that she had more work to do in a compassionate yet firm way.
Life has second chances and learning should too
As Bridgette remembers it, after class, I provided additional information about what was expected and encouraged her. According to her, the second chance presentation was really much better. She ended this story with the fact that she uses a similar approach with unprepared students in her own classes. When she uses this technique, she lets her students know that being prepared is an important part of what’s required in class and in life. She tells her students that she believes in their ability to perform at their best.
The art of teaching
Becoming the most effective teacher possible requires the best pedagogy you can develop. Like most professors at Luther, I continuously work to master a range of methods, a variety of strategies and several different instructional contexts. Luther professors are well prepared to teach content, skills and attitudes within their disciplines. But their most valuable asset is that Luther professors believe that all students can learn. They know their students as people and help them with the motivation, skill-building and practice they need to succeed. Some students perform better than others and it's easier to gravitate toward the "high fliers,"’ but Luther professors become effective teachers who give most students the opportunity to overcome barriers to learning.
I believe in students today just as much, if not more, than I did when I started teaching. I know how powerful believing in students is for them and for our society. Believing is not just blind faith or a platitudinous emotion. Bridgette reminded me that believing is the willingness to challenge students. Believing is insisting that students understand what it takes to learn. For me, teaching believes in students. From direct instruction, to discussions for critical thinking, or from learning projects to second chances, I believe in prompt and effective feedback. Believing is treating our students as people and giving them chances to demonstrate what they are learning. Believing in students helps them to believe in themselves. I can't wait to see what a Luther student will tell my grandchildren, one day.
Sheila Radford-Hill is an educator, author and community activist who became the first executive director of the Luther Diversity Center in August 2003. Her responsibilities involve extending the benefits of diversity at the college and serving faculty and students as a resource for inclusion. She is a faculty associate who teaches Paideia II courses and a course in English, Africana studies, and women and gender studies.