Learning, Teaching, and a Culture of Care

"We need to be courageous enough to create space for change and the new language that will facilitate that change." - Jeff Grabill

By Jeff Grabill, Associate Provost for Teaching, Learning, and Technology

A number of faculty, students, and staff have been working on a new approach to educator professional development. It is an inclusive and community-based framework for how we can all grow as teachers and learners. It has been clear to each of us that this effort is, at heart, a culture change project.  

We are clearly a community in need of change, and we are a community in great pain. We hope that our cultural work on educator professional development is a resource for change, if not healing. I want to write from that collective work on educator professional development, but I’d like to risk a personal response. Personalizing this piece is quite challenging for me, so please bear with me.

Having said that, my first move is thoroughly academic–to begin with some research, in this case the Gallup-Purdue survey on characteristics of the college experience that alumni identify as meaningful to them.

The survey attempts to understand the college experience and its impact on the well-being of college graduates. The odds that college graduates will be engaged at work and thriving in all areas of well-being are much higher if they felt well-prepared and were engaged in high impact learning experiences while in college.

Most important are the characteristics of the college experience that can be attributed directly to educators and the environments they create for students. Here, the odds of being engaged at work and thriving in all areas of well-being are much higher if students

  • Had a mentor who encouraged them to pursue goals and dreams,
  • Had professors who cared about them, or
  • Had at least one professor who made them excited about learning (“passion” matters).

Of course, the impact on individuals was higher still if they experienced all three in college.

Yet as the Gallup/Purdue authors write, “few college graduates that Gallup studied achieve the winning combination. Only 14% of graduates strongly agree they were supported by professors who cared, who made them excited about learning, and who encouraged their dreams.”

Surveys such as this point to what we might think of as a “pedagogy of care,” and such a pedagogy has been a focus of the culture change project we are engaged in across campus with regard to learning and teaching.


Why Caring Matters

Let me share my own experience about why caring matters. As university faculty, we have lots of notions about what teaching and pedagogy mean. As most faculty readily acknowledge, they received little to no education or training in either. So what many faculty and graduate students understand about how to teach is grounded in their disciplinary expertise (and how they were taught). This is completely understandable. But this means that the most common notion of what it means to teach is to “deliver content.” Yet today, more than ever, students can find content on their own. What they cannot find online is someone who can listen and offer feedback. They can’t readily find someone who will care about them as learners.

The Gallup-Purdue findings resonated deeply with me because they reinforced something I’d felt about my own experience as a teacher but didn’t have the language to express. When I was at my best as a teacher–when I felt I was at my best–I had the time, space, and energy to get to know my students, to listen to their stories, to share my joy about what we were learning, and to change my approach to teaching to meet their needs. My most joyless experiences as a teacher were always when I did not have or feel as if I could take the time to care for and about students.

When I had the time to practice care with students, the outcomes were transformative for everyone. Especially me. Students would tell me, often after they left the university, that “you were excited to be there every day,” or “you took the time to get to know me,” or, yes, even “you helped me pursue my dreams.” Nobody ever said that the content or skills they learned stuck with them, although they learned those things as well. What mattered to them was that the experience of our classroom helped them develop as human beings. Turns out that this is the outcome that most matters to me as well. But I had to learn that, and I learned it from students.

What is the key to a culture of learning and teaching at a university that will change people’s lives? The pursuit of goals and dreams, excitement and passion, and care.


Faculty Care About Students

Sometimes students tell me stories of classes and entire semesters marked by disengagement, by isolation, and without passion.

Why is that? Is it the case that faculty and other educators don’t care about their students? Aren’t excited and passionate about their subject and discipline? Aren’t interested in the hopes and dreams of students?

Just the opposite is the case.

In my experience here at the Hub, every time that we have provided the time and space for faculty to consider why they chose to be faculty, the answer is the same: students.

Every. Time.

When faculty tell their stories, they talk about their preference to spend more time with students, to experiment in the classroom, to focus their work with students on the big challenges that humans face, to teach differently than they feel able to teach.

They don’t talk about delivering content.


Making the Choice to Build a Culture of Care

While I’m convinced that faculty and other educators care deeply, we don’t always design environments or practice our pedagogy in ways that express that care. Faculty work lives are powerfully shaped by incentive systems. Faculty at Michigan State feel that the only thing that matters on this campus is research. They feel this way with some evidence that this is so.

But this simply cannot be so.

We are at a moment at this university when cultural changes are required. This is an institution that must become more caring.

Change requires a new language. An organization is its language.

As we continue to develop a new approach to educator professional development, we need to be courageous enough to create space for change and the new language that will facilitate that change.

Faculty and staff can choose to spend more time with students. We can choose to reimagine our approach to learning and to teaching. We can choose to encourage our students to pursue their goals and dreams. We can choose to care about each student as a person and to work to provide each student with what they need, even at the scale of MSU. We can choose to share our passion and excite students about learning with us. We can choose to care.

Imagine a culture around learning and teaching that had these characteristics. Imagine approaches to educator professional development grounded in this language. Imagine merit and promotion and tenure guidelines in a new key.

Then imagine what questions we need to ask to get there. The questions we aren’t supposed to ask. And the people who need to be part of this conversation.


What questions will you ask?  #iTeachMSU


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