Pre-College Math and Adjuncts

A key relationship.


August 20, 2014

The work of adjunct faculty has been a frequent topic in the higher education and national news this year; for example, there was a University of Venus post on part-time faculty and professional development in February. In a recent research project (summary) focused on adjunct faculty we asked: How can community college mathematics departments effectively engage their adjunct/part-time/non-tenure-track faculty in the efforts around pre-college level math reform? While the answers are focused on the field of mathematics, they can add to the broader discussion on professional development for adjunct faculty.

The majority of instructors in pre-college math classes nationwide are adjunct faculty. Pre-college math has become a gatekeeper due to low student success rates, so reform efforts could directly affect students’ academic outcomes. We interviewed grant leaders and adjunct faculty at three community colleges receiving Rethinking Pre-college Mathematics grant funds from Washington State, with initial funding coming from the Gates Foundation.

In our article, Effective Engagement Strategies for Non-Tenure-Track Faculty in Precollege Mathematics Reform in Community Colleges (Gerhard & Burn, 2014), we argue that adjunct faculty will engage around opportunities for professional growth.  The professional growth framework, developed by O’Meara, Terosky and Neumann (2008), is composed of four aspects: engaging in personal and professional learning; assuming agency; creating and sustaining professional relationships; and forming and acting on professional commitments.

It didn’t surprise us to find that departmental and grant leaders thought paying their adjunct faculty would motivate them to participate in trainings and implement the desired changes to instructional practice. These leaders believed any “adjunct [who] wants to be considered a professional” in their department could. Adjunct faculty wanted to “have a voice” and engage in the reform efforts.  But historically adjunct faculty engagement in these departments was weak. Then grant funding created trainings on curricula, workshops and grant wide retreats with multiple community colleges. Payments, preferential course scheduling and personal invitations were all successful in getting adjunct faculty involved in their initial engagement with grant activities. Basically, the $100 or personal invitation got adjuncts to attend the meeting, if their schedule permitted.

What did surprise us was the extent to which building and sustaining professional relationships was more powerful than money in helping adjuncts remain engaged in reform efforts. Some already had connections with other adjunct, and perhaps tenure-track, faculty from their department. Others expressed the sense of isolation often heard in writing on adjuncts, where “people don’t even know your name.” Departmental meetings on grant implementation, statewide retreats, faculty inquiry groups, and reciprocal exchanges all helped adjunct faculty build and maintain better relationships with their colleagues, as these faculty could see themselves and all their colleagues in a professional light.

We also did not expect to find that sustained engagement in the reform efforts was fueled by adjunct faculty’s interest in both their own professional growth and improving the outcomes of their students. At training sessions, adjuncts soon realized that what they were learning could make their “classroom a more rich place for students.” Some learned for the first time that the challenges they had in their pre-college math classrooms were not theirs alone, and that efforts to improve student success in pre-college math were occurring not only in their college, but state and nationwide.

Learning opportunities for faculty were formal and communal, such as curricular training sessions; they were also independent for example when two faculty members observe each other’s classes in reciprocal exchanges, to gain new perspectives on their own teaching practice. Off campus, week-long retreats with multiple colleges became a place for faculty to connect both with adjunct and tenure-tenure track colleagues from their home department as well as with others from around the state. This rare opportunity deeply affected some adjunct faculty’s approach to their work, with one commenting: “That week somehow really lit a fire in me.”

Engaging in the grant based activities, gaining a new view on the challenges around pre-college math, and better understanding their role in student success strengthened adjuncts’ commitment to improving student outcomes. Faculty said that helping students “drives” them in their work, and that they were “morally driven” to persist in their work with students. Learning more about both teaching practice and broader student challenges in pre-college math raised their awareness of the role they could play in helping students. For some, this awareness mitigated the short-term increase in workload that came with implementing changes to their practice created by curricular and instructional reforms.

We are not ignoring the many limits adjunct faculty may have on their work and lives, and the political and organizational constraints they may maneuver through.  We are not suggesting all adjunct faculty want to, will, or should engage at this level of professional learning and relationship building, only that given the opportunity they can make their own choice to engage now, later, or not at all. We believe that using a broader lens to consider professional development, a lens that encompasses all aspects of the professional growth framework (O’Meara, Terosky and Neumann, 2008) – learning, agency, commitment and professional relationships, will make professional development powerful and engaging for adjunct/part-time/non-tenure-track faculty.  Professional development planners and leaders can more actively create opportunities to build relationships with other faculty, and set sessions or activities in a broader context, such as understanding more about the student success challenges in pre-college math nationally. All of this can strengthen adjunct faculty’s commitment to their own learning, practice and professional growth.

Gabrielle Gerhard, Ph.D., conducts research in the areas of community college faculty and mathematics, and adult basic and basic skills education, with a specific focus on transition from basic skills to college enrollment. She is a research associate with the Curriculum Research Group and has taught as adjunct faculty at the University of Washington, Seattle, and Seattle University. Gabrielle can be contacted at gabrielle.g.gerhard@gmail.com

Helen Burn, Ph.D., is an Instructor in the department of mathematics at Highline College and director of the Curriculum Research Group. Her research focuses on adjunct faculty in community college mathematics, reform of pre-college mathematics, and supporting mathematics in the partner disciplines. She is also currently a consultant to the Characteristics of Special Programs in College Calculus project of the Mathematical Association of America.



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