128: Courage in the Classroom with St. Edward's U. Professor Santiago Toledo

Listen to Santiago Toledo on Navigating Change The Education Podcast

Santiago Toledo is tired of old teaching models. He serves St. Edward’s University as Associate Professor of Chemistry and as such, he was an engaged learner himself in a recent change workshop with Howard Teibel.

Professor Toledo is an active participant in the dialog on change in the classroom; the requirements for challenging today’s students and the forces on faculty who aspire to build innovative teaching models in the face of legacy academic forces serve as a foundation for his contributions. 

Professor Toledo joins us on Navigating Change today to share his work in the classroom and beyond. We begin with a discussion on change, and the faculty member’s role as a leader of change in the classroom. From there, we dive into the tools we must master — both as faculty members and administrators — to create the academic models that support those who lead our students as they face the challenges of learning that lie before them.

Our guest was kind enough to provide us resources for further investigation. 

Reflections — Santiago Toledo, St. Edward's University Associate Professor of Chemistry

Faculty, especially new pre-tenure faculty, might feel like they don't necessarily "manage" anyone because they are often not at the top of the chain of command in a traditionally hierarchical academic setting. Howard's seminar on Managing Through Change is however 100% applicable to faculty who are facing a wave of changes as to how to best facilitate students’ learning.

Faculty who are following best practices know that the most recent literature shows that the old model of teaching, which focuses on a teacher-centered approach, is simply not working. As a result of this faculty are left to dive into the most recent research in teaching and learning to figure out ways to best facilitate learning in our students. This is overwhelming to most of us since our training was never on pedagogy but on our respective fields of expertise. If we are brave and curious enough to do this, changes in how we teach are bound to happen.

This results in instructors proposing major "changes" in the way our students learn in our classroom, and because unfortunately the old model of teaching is still pervasive, students resist any kind of change to the established structure (the contempt room in the 4-Room Model). This leaves faculty trying to figure out not only our new course design and pedagogies to facilitate learning, but also how to effectively manage this proposed change with resistant students.

Students in these circumstances often revolt against major changes and this sometimes results in very difficult situations for pre-tenure faculty trying to demonstrate that they are indeed good instructors. Often student evaluations don't truly measure the quality of the instructor but instead the level of agreement or disagreement that students have with the instructor and his or her methodologies used. This challenge could potentially dissuade new instructors from being bold about trying new, evidence-based approaches in their instruction. I believe this is a disservice to students and to developing faculty that are trying to find their identity as instructors.

One possible way to mitigate the pushback from students is to use the language that Howard proposed in his model for managing change. Students must be given clear indications about what is changing and why it is changing. This will clarify to them that they and the instructors are on the same side of the learning team. Helping them see the big picture and the benefits of any given approach can help them see that it is about them and not about the instructor. Students must also be coached on the idea that change is a process and that it is not easy. The four-room model becomes essential at this stage by helping students identify where they are in their comfort level with the proposed change. Identifying the stages of change gives students language for their feelings which might otherwise be difficult to explain and therefore may never be voiced. Students should also be encouraged to be skeptics and not cynics when engaging in new methodologies of learning. This means that they will be encouraged to question but only if they are willing to adopt the course design as a whole as a potentially viable way for them to learn. Instructors can then clearly identify a timeline in the semester where students can voice their opinions and educated thoughts about the process of change. This will then focus the energy of faculty on coaching the skeptics and not the cynics that might never leave the denial room.

From the perspective of faculty engaged in this process of change, it is important for them to recognize that change doesn't happen overnight and that it is often an iterative process. Faculty must be courageous enough to try something new (always based on best-practices of course) despite the fact that it might have difficult consequences from the perspective of evaluations from students and how they might be perceive by faculty peers. As Howard said, the leader must recognize that it is not really about them but about the goal.

Most of us in academia have the best intentions for the betterment of our students in mind. This is a way to make that commitment transparent and authentic. If the goal is to help students become self-directed learners and better thinkers, and if change is what is going to take them there, sometimes we have to be ok with potential personal setbacks. This courage must be coupled to optimism so that the faculty member can remember why they are changing as well as what the ultimate purpose is so they do not dismay throughout their efforts. When in the “valley of despair” faculty will encounter many difficulties and must be effectively coached through these challenges by peer-mentors or administrators. Additionally, faculty must also be skeptics of their own work. Change without reflection and revision is not a productive process. We must realize that learning to facilitate learning effectively is an iterative process where we learn from our successes and failures, so skepticism and flexibility are key to success.

All of this must be coupled with an understanding by faculty department chairs and deans to recognize the stages of change and the process it entails. With this understanding they can then encourage and guide new faculty and rising faculty to take risks and to do so often in order to be able to eventually succeed. Without this understanding fear takes over the process and faculty are not willing to change for fear of negative consequences to their careers. Once again, this is a huge disservice to our constituency — the students.

I think Howard's model is a beautiful way to educate administrators and faculty alike when trying to move in the direction of new pedagogies and alternative models of teaching. From a faculty perspective, these ideas are not so much about managing change but about guiding people through the process of change. I am passionate about this, and I know there are many faculty like me that feel this way and could benefit immensely from the language and process proposed by Howard in Managing Through Change.