Teaching Today

Teaching the Teachers

Christopher M. Hakala provides insights on creating and running a teaching center.

January 17, 2017

For the first 19 years of my career, I happily served as a faculty member at a variety of institutions. I worked my way up from a rookie assistant professor to full professor. However, several years ago, after careful deliberation, I left my institution and started a new job as director of university teaching and learning at Quinnipiac University.

The transition from faculty member to a center director was not always smooth, but it now feels as if I was able to make the necessary changes to my workflow so that I am able to balance work, life and all the other demands on my time. At least that’s what I tell myself. For those of you who might consider working at or running a teaching center yourself, my experience might provide a few insights.

I started my graduate career the same way most students do. I was a really strong undergraduate student, and faculty members, as well as my adviser, encouraged me to apply to graduate school. I had come from a family in which I was the first to go to college, so graduate school was a foreign concept to me. I loved my undergraduate institution, as I was treated well and the faculty all seemed so willing to work with me and share their ideas. I decided I wanted to go to graduate school, learn all that I could and then return to an institution that focused on teaching and work there for the rest of my career. I even wrote a paper for a course my senior year in college on how I would end up teaching at a small, liberal artsy college when I completed my degree. (I still have the paper and it is, well, awful.)

The graduate school I attended was one that specialized in training psychology Ph.D. students (my chosen area) both in a specialized academic area as well as in how to actually teach the discipline. Thus, in my third year of graduate school, I found myself not only teaching a small section of introductory psychology, but I also enrolled in a Teaching of Psychology course, where we read literature by pioneering scholars of teaching such as Wilbert J. McKeachie's Teaching Tips (Cengage Learning, 2013) and L. Dee Fink's Creating Significant Learning Experiences (Jossey-Bass, 2013).

I was hooked. Teaching was such a rush, and learning that there was a whole world of people not only interested in teaching but also in learning how to teach better, and that they were doing that empirically, whetted my appetite for more. The academy had just seen the 1990 publication of Ernest Boyer’s Scholarship Reconsidered, and the scholarship of teaching and learning, while still a nascent science, was gaining momentum.

I completed my degree and accepted a position at a small liberal arts college. While there, I realized that I not only loved teaching but also doing research on effective teaching. I continued to read the research, manage small projects on teaching and work to improve my own pedagogy. As the years went by, I adapted my style to my increased confidence, the emerging and burgeoning literature on teaching, and the various institutions I worked for to develop both a pedagogy that seemed effective and to begin to share that knowledge with others. I started collecting a small library of resources and presenting on teaching at both psychology and teaching conferences.

In 2011, I asked the provost (for the third time) if, besides doing my own teaching, I could start a teaching center at my institution. He was very reluctant, but after some persistence (and more than a few emails with details about how a center would look, as well as some cool coffee mugs that said something about a teaching center on them), the provost gave in and gave me a small budget and some release time to start a center. The Center for Teaching and Learning was designed to help faculty access empirically validated teaching strategies and to obtain guidance on how to implement them.

After several years, I decided I wanted to run a teaching center full time. I applied and was hired on the administrative track at my current institution to create and run its teaching and learning center. This shift in my responsibilities was significant: I went from working primarily with students to working with the faculty and other administrators to helping set policy and guiding faculty members to teach in ways that benefit their students.

It hasn’t been without its challenges, but the move has been rewarding in many ways. And, along the way, I’ve learned some lessons about establishing and directing a teaching center.

  • Centers for teaching and learning can be vibrant, visible presences on campus. Take advantage of the first several months to create a center that has an impact. First impressions matter.
  • Take the time to get to know the key stakeholders at your institution. Spend time in the first few months scheduling meetings with people who can help shape your vision.
  • Develop a stable of reliable, committed faculty members who share your vision for what a center can be and name them to an advisory board.
  • Continue to teach. Faculty members are appreciative of the effort, and it gives you common ground to talk about what you are doing in the classroom as examples in your workshops.
  • Develop a set of guiding principles that help define your center. Talk about them in both formal and informal settings.
  • Choose battles wisely. Know, in particular, if you are new to campus, that there were politics before you arrived and those may impact you, even though you weren’t originally a part of them. Be aware of what came before you and work within the context of the institution you have rather than trying to develop an institution that you want.
  • Keep open lines of communication with your supervisor and discuss expectations early, and review them every semester.
  • Never turn down an opportunity to work directly with students.
  • Keep your door open when you are alone. Keep it closed when working with faculty member.
  • Be incredibly nice and appreciative of any administrative help you get.

Finally, I have crafted a position that seems to be in line with the mission of the institution and that also seems to be beneficial to many of the folks I come into contact with at the university. I have a newfound respect for the hard work of administrators, and I have experienced the joys and challenges of working with a very bright and committed group of faculty members. Most important, I believe I have had an impact on student learning at my institution.

If you choose to go this route, understand that the transition is slow and sometimes painful. But new challenges renew our energy and help us work in a way that provides our students with the best possible education we can provide for them.


Christopher M. Hakala is executive director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Quinnipiac University.


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