When I started teaching at Arizona Western College 27 years ago, my goal was to get a few years of teaching experience and then head north, ultimately to Alaska to teach in the system there. I like cold temperatures, snow, and bears. But, as often happens, life got more complicated. After getting married and having kids, life got more complicated and Alaska just was not a practical option.
I pursued a career in teaching at the college level because I didn't see myself enjoying a career in the lab. A faculty position at a two-year college was available in southwest Arizona, so I applied and was offered the position (see my story on interviewing for a two year faculty position). Once I started at Arizona Western, I liked the cerebral freedom to create new teaching material.
Today, alongside teaching, I serve as a mentor (officially and unofficially) for new faculty in all academic disciplines with less than two years’ experience. They frequently ask, "So what practical advice would you like to share about becoming the best teacher possible?" Well if you’re new to teaching, I can give you a detailed snapshot of what teaching at a two-year college is like and what you can do to be the best educator possible.
Since the 1970s my college has had a Monday–Thursday instructional workweek. More and more two-year colleges are moving to a Monday through Thursday instructional week and using Friday for other college duties and responsibilities.
In the table below is my typical semester teaching schedule. It represents teaching obligations as defined by my employer. I do not teach an overload (anything in excess of my full-time schedule) nor do I teach summer session (personal choices). If I were to teach a one-course overload, then I’d squeeze in another lecture (plus lab) somewhere in an open time slot.
For me, teaching an overload is a personal choice. I don't do it because it leaves me little time to devote to creating new course material or to engage in external professional development (e.g., attending ACS webinars and Two-Year College Chemistry Consortium meetings) or to read the primary literature (e.g., the Journal of Chemical Education).
The open time slots represent time for me to do whatever I want related to faculty work. I am expected to be on campus carrying out employee/faculty duties and responsibilities 34 hours a week. All my classes are face-to-face, and my office hours are a mix of in-person and virtual. Teaching at a two-year college means you, not TAs, will teach labs, as there are no TAs. Depending on department size, you may or may not have a lab manager. If not, then you'll have to prep, set up, and clean up the lab yourself.
Typical Semester Teaching Schedule
|8:00 a.m.||Gen Chem Lab 001||Gen Chem Lecture 001|
|1:00 p.m.||Gen Chem Lab 002||Organic Chem Lecture||Gchem Lecture 002||Organic Chem Lecture|
|* College Common Hour (CCH) - Committee work every third week of the month each semester|
|** Science Faculty Meeting (SFM) - Last Wednesday of every month each semester|
When I'm Not in Class or Meetings
What do I do in the open time slots? On Monday and Wednesday, I do any necessary prep work before the afternoon lab or lecture—update lecture slides, rearrange the classroom to accommodate an active learning activity, set up a demo, make sure the lab instruments are working properly, and so on. Tuesday and Thursday are usually open because very few students show for office hours. This gives me a block of time to devote to other teaching/professional development pursuits. Let's take a look at some of them.
- Deep work (a term coined by Cal Newport, computer science professor at Georgetown University and author of the book Deep Work)
At least once a week I set aside three consecutive hours to focus on meaningful work with minimal chances of distraction. What do I do? Review the Journal of Chemical Education for relevant, interesting articles that can be applied in my classes, peruse Chemical & Engineering News to keep abreast of what's going on in the world of chemistry, or search general readership sources such as Scientific American, National Geographic, American Scientist, WIRED, Live Science, The Atlantic, and New Scientist for podcasts or articles written for the general public.
For example, science writer Ed Yong's articles “The History of the Oceans Is Locked in Whale Earwax” and “The Lingering Curse That's Killing Killer Whales” prompted me to begin development of a classroom activity focused on the chemistry involved in both stories. The New Scientist article "Unusual cyclones over past two years created Africa’s locust plague" about the 2019–2020 locust plagues inflicting damage on the eastern African continent, the Arabian Peninsula, and eastward to western India and Pakistan, directed me to the research done by Chinese scientists in figuring out the structure of the molecule emitted by locusts to initiate swarming behavior, 4-vinylanisole. I then used this storyline in my Organic Chemistry 1 lecture as an introduction to chemical ecology and the application of chemistry.
- Prep exams and quizzes
When writing exam questions, I do not use test bank exam questions as I find them unchallenging and devoid of high-level thinking. So I spend a lot of time writing exam or quiz questions from scratch using real-world scenarios found in my “deep work” sessions. Plus, I just enjoy writing them. This keeps me on my toes and challenges me to rethink how to visually present data, a graph, or a new way to explain something.
- Create new classroom active learning activities
About six years ago, I made a tectonic shift away from straight lecturing (though I do believe in the effectiveness of well-organized and engaging lectures—chemistry is but a story told, like a play). Instead of predominantly lecturing, I shifted to a student group work and problem-solving approach. This meant I needed to convert my lectures to classroom group activities. It also meant I needed new material. So I spend my open time either creating new material (sourced from my deep work sessions) or adding new twists to existing material.
Becoming Your Best
I have three suggestions for how you can become the most effective teacher and a productive planner.
1. Become a generalist
Years of graduate school and perhaps a postdoc honed your specialist skill sets. No doubt, such skills are highly useful and definitely required for a research faculty position at an R1 institution. But remember, at a two-year college you are teaching Introduction to Chemistry, General Chemistry, or Organic Chemistry sequences and perhaps not every semester. An overwhelming majority of your students are not pursuing a chemistry degree. Instead, they are pursuing bachelor’s degrees in biology, pre-medicine, engineering, pharmacy, or something in the field of health care. That is the reality. Embrace it! If you are an inorganic chemist, then learn as much as possible about metabolic reactions so you can incorporate the relevant information into your Intro Chem course populated mostly with nursing students. If you are an organic chemist, then learn as much as possible about lithium ion batteries so you can incorporate that into your GChem 2 course when teaching electrochemistry.
If you’re looking for a good read, check out RANGE: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein. Its thesis: People who think broadly and embrace diverse experiences and perspectives will thrive in an increasingly specialized and siloed world. Intro Chem, GChem, or OChem are survey courses. You're not going to spend an entire semester on two or three topics. The challenge in teaching these survey courses is to show connections between seemingly different topics, ultimately to weave a tapestry of different colors into one, uniform blanket.
2. Volunteer as a coach of a sport or get involved in scouting (or other associations/volunteer organizations)
Huh? Coaching or serving as an adult scout leader is akin to teaching. Basically, teaching is what you are doing when coaching a child how to draw an arrow in archery or demonstrating how to do the scissor kick in swimming. Both sports and scouting are all about meeting clearly defined objectives and using different methods to make that happen for students with different abilities. Meeting those objectives requires a consistency in organization, practice, and encouragement to help those kids trying to meet or exceed the objectives. These are key components to blossoming into a knockout, awesome instructor.
3. Learn a new skill
Again, huh? Going through the challenge of learning a new skill will increase your empathy toward students as they struggle with learning complicated subjects like chemistry. For example, I picked up recreational archery a few years back. Come to find out that I am left-eye dominant so I had to learn how to draw the bow string with my nondominant left hand. Initially it was weird (like energy and d-orbitals and a slew of other chemistry concepts). Both my accuracy and precision were atrocious. But with practice and persistence, my form improved and so too did my accuracy and precision. Now, it feels totally natural to use my left hand to draw a bow string (and to do other physical tasks).
What's the point? Most likely my students were feeling the same way learning chemistry stuff as I did initially trying to learn how to shoot an arrow left-handed. Empathy. It's important as a faculty.
Hopefully I have shown that you need not turn into a teaching mercenary where you are teaching so much and so often that you barely keep your head above water. Your days may consist of running from one classroom or lab to another, but it’s important to give yourself time for deep thought. A healthy mix of teaching and scholarship is a great place to find yourself.