At a time when community colleges are feeling more pressure than ever to improve their completion rates and new Ph.D.s are feeling more pressure than ever to find a job, graduate schools around the country are struggling with just what it means to prepare community college instructors. Now, recognizing that what these instructors need is markedly different training from their counterparts in high schools and at four-year universities, some graduate programs are offering credentials specifically for those students who plan to or already teach at community colleges as a supplement to their subject matter graduate training.
Temple University, for instance, introduced a teaching certificate specifically for community college professors earlier this year and graduated its first students last month — just in time for them to take what they learned into their classrooms for the fall semester.
Those seeking the certificate do not have to be enrolled in a Temple graduate program, and there is a specific track for current community college instructors who, though they are already experts in their discipline, want a professional development opportunity to learn new teaching techniques. This first-offering of the certificate this spring attracted mid- and late-career professors at nearby Delaware County Community College and Community College of Philadelphia who were able to finish the program over the course of a few months by taking classes one night a week.
There is also a separate track for current Temple graduate students who aspire to teach in higher education, including at community colleges but want a teaching credential to accompany a graduate degree in their chosen discipline. More than 60 graduate students from the university’s communications, theater, physical sciences and education departments — to name a few — enrolled in the program.
Pamela Barnett, associate vice provost and director of Temple’s Teaching and Learning Center, said that the community college teaching certificate was developed at the behest and with the input of local community college leaders, many of whom bemoaned that most of their instructors come to their institutions with Ph.D.s and master's degrees but without any actual teaching experience.
The certificate for current community college instructors consists of a three-credit seminar on “teaching in higher education” — with broad-based lessons on various teaching philosophies and course designs — and three one-credit modules on specific topics. Current topics are “assessment,” “diversity and inclusive teaching” and “teaching with technology.” Aspiring higher education instructors in graduate school take the same introductory seminar but then take on a teaching practicum in which they serve as teaching assistants at Temple instead of taking the module courses.
One of the most valuable aspects of the program, according to its participants, is the opportunity to talk about their individual teaching practices with other community college instructors and learn from one another. This, Barnett argued, makes the program appropriate both as an introductory teaching course for new community college instructors and as a booster course for longtime professors.
“Having a Ph.D. doesn’t necessarily prepare one for teaching, so some are having 'a-ha' moments by the minute in the program,” Barnett said. “Others have a different experience and will say about one or two things, ‘I’ve never thought about it that way’ and ‘I can’t wait to try that out in my classroom.’ ”
That was the experience of Valerie Schantz, reading and critical thinking professor at Delaware County Community College, who completed the certificate program last month. She has been teaching at her college for more than six years. Though she has a master’s degree in education with a reading specialization, she had never taught college students prior to taking her current position.
“I knew the way we taught the 20th-century learner wasn’t the way to teach the 21st-century learner,” Schantz said. “This program made me rethink some of my practices within the classroom. I’m already planning some changes for the fall.”
For instance, Schantz said she would embrace the technology with which her students were familiar when creating assignments. So instead of always assigning a five-page essay for students to show their understanding of a concept, she said she will encourage the creation of videos or other multimedia presentations for the class. Additionally, she said, she will try to make more use of interactive online tools to stimulate discussion among her students outside of the classroom.
Another important aspect of the certificate program is its focus on diversity training. Though it might seem odd that community college instructors, who by and large deal with more diverse populations than their four-year counterparts, would need such training, the program’s diversity instructor said that, according to her students, it is one of the most essential aspects of the program.
Janice Laurence, a professor in Temple’s College of Education, taught the certificate program’s module in “diversity and inclusive teaching.” In this module, professors are taught how to make "diversity action plans" for their classes and are given suggestions as to how to cater their teaching to the demographics of the students in their classes. These “soft skills,” she said, are just as important for community college instructors to know as skills like how to integrate technology into their classrooms or how to assess their students’ learning outcomes.
"Every community college has a diversity plan on its Web site," Laurence said. "I had them take a look at it. If you’re at a community college, then typically you’re interested in diversity. You care about these kids and adults. But with diversity, I think these instructors are interested in walking the walk and talking the talk.”
Temple hopes to expand its community college teaching certificate program further so that professionals outside of the Philadelphia metropolitan area can take advantage of it online. Also, Barnett said the certificate program hopes to add more modules as community colleges tell Temple what skills they want their instructors to have.
Other Models Adapting
Offering teaching certificates to community college instructors or those who wish to become them is not an entirely new idea. In contrast to Temple’s more general teaching certificate, a few other graduate programs around the country have certificate programs for specific disciplines at community colleges. Still, even those behind the current programs are thinking about ways to further cater them to the needs of today’s and tomorrow’s community college instructors.
San Francisco State University, for example, offers graduate certificates in “the teaching of composition” and “teaching post-secondary reading.” These credentials have been around for more than twenty years, but they are still relatively rare, as are other development opportunities for would-be community college instructors.
Jennifer Trainor, an English professor at the university, explains that most students who pursue these certificates are earning master’s degrees in other disciplines such as literature, creative writing or linguistics. The extra certificate, she noted, makes them much more desirable to community colleges that are hiring. Community colleges often take their chances hiring candidates who have no such instructional training, even though they may have a Ph.D. or a master’s degree. The teaching credential is a sign that these candidates at least know something about instruction.
“We try to give those in the certificate program an overview of composition theory, and we also show them common student errors in writing and how to approach them constructively,” Trainor said. “Sometimes the first response to bad student writing is to put red ink all over a paper, throw your hands up and go look for another job. We try to show these future instructors what kinds of mistakes students make and how not to mark up everything and how to take teaching them step-by-step. This gives them some great professional development before they even enter the door.”
Despite the fact that San Francisco State does offer community college instructor-specific credentials — which is more than many graduate programs training teachers can say — those behind these credentials admit they could be doing more to prepare their students for the sometimes-overwhelming community college world. In fact, San Francisco State is in the midst of entirely revamping these community college instructor credentials.
“There’s a lot of research on programs that prepare new teaching assistants and those of the like, but there is very little research on preparing community college teachers,” Trainor said. “We need to be asking the questions as to what we could be doing better to prepare our students to teach at community colleges. We don’t have a lot of the answers right now. If anything, we’ve done well for all these years in spite of ourselves. But we’re excited about talking to our community college partners and seeing what they want.”
For example, Trainor noted, these certificate programs could do a better job in preparing students for the online learning environment that has become popular at many community colleges. Also, she said, programs could include more training for the many administrative responsibilities that some community college instructors may have to take on when they get their first jobs.
Sugie Goen-Salter, another English professor at San Francisco State, is hoping to take the revamping of these community college training credentials one step further. Many of the students in these certificate programs, she noted, do not have much of a concept of what it means to teach at a community college. In other words, they are not aware of the great diversity of learning styles, personal struggles and day-to-day issues unique to these institutions and their students, which will doubtless affect their teaching in some manner.
Goen-Salter wants all those taking these certificate programs to learn about the history of community colleges and their missions.
“These students need to be exposed to the mission of these institutions and the realities of what life is going to be like on the ground,” Goen-Salter said. “The more exposure they’ve had to what it means to teach at a community college before they actually get there, the better. I don’t think there are enough graduate programs out there doing this type of work and preparing community college instructors.”