(Extra) Help Wanted

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It’s the first week of spring semester and I’m already feeling overwhelmed by the sheer volume of duties ahead of me in the coming months. Yesterday in class I heard myself telling students “not to be overly stressed by the syllabus on the first day.” At the same time in my own head I was thinking: “how will I ever get all of this accomplished in 3½ months?”

Reality is that I’ve been teaching long enough to know that while the semester will move quickly  somehow what I planned for my students will get done. It struck me yesterday, however, that the students who sit before me do not have years of academic success to fall back on as reassurance that they can conquer the challenges ahead. While some students come to a community college for reasons that include economics, change of career or geography, many also come because they have failed to achieve their academic goals at four-year colleges. I’m thinking a lot this week about how we as faculty can help those students who have under-achieved in the past be successful in the future.

Yesterday, in addition to outlining the syllabus and academic requirements, I added a short pep talk to my course introduction: not one person in the room, I reminded them, signed up with the intention of failing and/or withdrawing. I asked them to think carefully about what being “successful” will require. 

Success amidst the challenges of family and work life will require putting in the time necessary to complete course assignments. As I went through the syllabus yesterday I suggested that students give serious thought to how long it will take each of them to read a textbook chapter. In other words, I encouraged them to start the semester off by planning their homework time realistically. In any academic subject area, step one of this challenge is getting students to accept that they need to make a significant time commitment to their academic success. In reading-intensive subjects such as history and English the necessity of mapping out their use of time is often overlooked because they may not be asked to turn something in with every section of reading assigned. 

Talking with students on the first day of classes I was reminded that one of the biggest obstacles to student success is their willingness to acknowledge when things are not going well and to ask for help. While this responsibility falls squarely on each students’ shoulders, I’m planning to introduce an additional safety net to my introductory level classes this semester by taking advantage of our college’s new outreach program from the Student Success Center. My on-campus classes will be introduced next week to an “academic coach” from the Center who will share with them all of the support systems available at the college and then be available to my students throughout the semester via email and individual appointments. My hope is that by introducing this academic coach to my students in a short 10-minute presentation during our class time they will be better equipped to ask for extra help with writing and reading when challenges arise during the semester.

Ultimately, my students need to be able to transfer their community college credits to four-year schools. Beyond the credit hours and grades, however, they need to take with them the skills and confidence necessary for academic success. I’m hoping that linking an academic coach to my introductory history courses will offer them extra support in this process and result in better student outcomes. Looking forward to sharing an update later in the semester!

What challenges are you preparing for as we begin spring semester?

About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.