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Professors Should Learn and Respond to Students’ Unique Experiences (Opinion)

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I was a first generation student. I remember calling my mom to talk about the challenges I was facing and she was like, “Don’t worry, you’ll figure it out” and “You’ll be fine!” I remember his upbeat but vague statements as intended to support me but not being very helpful. I remember having to learn a new language in college, learning the definitions of fancy, jargonal words like “syllabus”. I remember wondering why my “classes” were now called “courses” and why my “tests” were now called “exams”.

I just didn’t understand much about college culture. Luckily, I figured out a lot (not without stumbling) and found professors and teaching assistants who listened to my experiences and believed in me. My eventual success was largely the product of their empathy and support.

I reflected on my own experiences while reviewing data from the recent Student Voice survey on how well students feel understood at their colleges. I immediately found some of the results of the survey conducted by Inside Higher Education and College Pulse with Kaplan’s distressing support. Only 14% of undergraduates strongly agree that their college or university meets the needs of all of its students, with the majority of respondents (55%) saying they neither agree neither disagree (about one in four), somewhat disagree (one in five), or strongly disagree (about one in 10). Only 28% say they have ever shared the challenges they face with their professors or other professionals at their institution.

These responses suggest that many of our students do not see our colleges and universities as understanding their experiences, and they are uncomfortable sharing these experiences and challenges with those at their institutions who may be able to support and to help them. It is appalling and tragic. The role of our colleges and universities is to foster the personal and professional development of our students and to support their learning and success. I am aware that I would not have succeeded without believing that my teachers and teaching assistants would be responsive and supportive in the face of the challenges I was experiencing.

I also saw opportunities in these results. Among respondents, 44% say the people they think understand them best are professors, with an additional 36% choosing academic advisors and an additional 17% choosing teaching assistants. I suspect that these categories of individuals have been recognized because of their close and frequent contact with students. If we focus our professional development efforts on these professionals in colleges and universities, I believe we can connect more explicitly and directly with and support our students. Again, reflecting on my own experiences, I know our students need our support.

A few years ago, through my university’s Center for Teaching and Learning, I was assigned to lead our professional development efforts, primarily to help college educators successfully teach students.

Being empathetic isn’t always easy. It takes work and is emotionally heavy. It takes time to listen and understand someone else’s point of view. One group of students that professors may struggle to empathize with are first-generation students (like me). By definition, professors spent a lot of time in college, unlike first-generation students.

With this charge, the first event I offered in the professional development series I designed was on teacher personality – crafting the person you will show yourself to your students. I wanted to develop an overarching foundation for a teacher persona that would work for teachers with varying personalities, philosophies, and academic disciplines to create and lead successful learning environments. I thought about the various characteristics and behaviors that would help bond with students to support their learning, and identified five components of this teaching persona.

I advocate that our professors, faculty advisors, and teaching assistants bring PEACE to their students and classes (especially in times of extreme challenge). Not only does this imply that they will create safe, inclusive and welcoming learning environments, but “PEACE” is an acronym that guides them in developing their specific teaching personas. By bringing approach to our courses and to our students, we are committed to bringing preparation, expertise, authenticity, benevolence and commitment.

Preparation (having a plan) and expertise (having content knowledge) are necessary but not sufficient to support our students’ learning. We also need to bring authenticity (establishing an atmosphere of trust and humanity), caring (structuring our courses to be welcoming and inclusive, genuinely caring about our students as people) and engagement (modeling full investment in the learning experience to increase self-engagement and learning by engaging the wise and via trickle-down engagement). Each of the components of PEACE is a characteristic of a character that teachers should strive to demonstrate through intentional action in every class meeting and every interaction with students.

At the heart of the benevolent component is empathy, that is, understanding the points of view of others. In the context of teaching, this would apply to teachers who invest in learning and responding to the individual and unique experiences of their students. I recommend that all college educators strive to bring PEACE to their classrooms through the five components, but the results of the Student Voice survey suggest that empathy is particularly needed. We have the opportunity to prioritize our infusion of empathy in our courses (i.e., empathetic course design perspective in our programs, course structure and policies, and assignments and assessments) and interactions with students to better understand and promote the experiences of our students at our colleges and universities. We can do this as individuals, and we can also promote this empathetic perspective to our colleagues both formally (eg, professional development events) and informally (eg, conversations about teaching).

Being empathetic isn’t always easy. It takes work and is emotionally heavy. It takes time to listen and understand someone else’s point of view. One group of students that professors may struggle to empathize with are first-generation students (like me). By definition, professors spent a lot of time in college, unlike first-generation students. For the former, the university experience is comfortable and familiar. For them, the college experience can be overwhelming and frightening. This division is a problem.

To help bridge the divide and inspire empathy, I share my experiences as a first-generation student with other college educators and, more importantly, with my students. I let them know that my experiences influence my perspective, but my students’ experiences also influence my perspective. I tell my peers and students that my teaching philosophy is inspired by my goal to support my students’ learning and success (not be arbitrarily “rigorous”), then I design my lessons using that explicitly demonstrate this objective.

These are the conversations I have. These are the conversations we should have often. We should create professional development opportunities to help college educators understand both why it matters and how to bring PEACE to their classrooms and students. We should make the goal of bringing PEACE to our students a goal that we intentionally and constantly pursue. If we do, we can let our students know that we are meeting their needs and invite them to share those needs with us.

These initially distressing Student Voice survey responses can inspire us to invest more intentionally in our opportunities to support the personal and professional development of our students by bringing PEACE to our courses.