Converging Pathways For Professional Learning

This is the keynote speech that I delivered on December 11, 2015 at Clark College for their faculty professional development day. If you follow this blog, you may recognize some of what I’ve written. If you follow my blog for the latest iteration of the federated wiki, then you’ll recognize some of those posts were actually drafts for this longer piece. Somehow my commitment to write a post for a 100 days straight helped me draft this keynote. You can’t plan this stuff, folks, sometimes it just happens. I’ll blog about that later.

This keynote–my very first–fell on the ears of faculty right before grades were due. Right after their Vice President of Instruction talked to them about budget cuts, removal of programs, and major changes to their institution right before introducing me. As I looked out into the audience of faculty, their exhaustion was palpable. I imitated the voice of Yoda, voices from a scene from Monty Python, and I can’t believe I did that in front of 200 people. A Memoir.

Here’s what I said:


I would like to thank Michelle Bagley and Lorraine Leedy for taking a risk and following the sage advice of our professional learning heroine at the state board, Jennifer Whetham, and inviting me here to be your keynote speaker. Standing up here, I can look into the audience and empathize with all of your positions on campus here at the end of the quarter–three days before grades are due. I can feel the Godzilla lasers shooting towards me as you sit there being forced to hear words of optimism about teaching from somebody who now works for the private sector!

Yet. I know what it’s like to be in the audience today. I’ve been a newly hired adjunct learning the ropes of teaching at a community college fresh out of graduate school. I’ve been a seasoned adjunct I-5 flying warrior stressed out beyond belief about my course load between several colleges. I’ve been an administrator who was part of the team responsible to plan such an event like today, and I’ve strategized with senior administrators on how to pay for such an event.

And although I never rose to the ranks of full-time tenured faculty, I was lucky that I had champions among the tenured who saved me a seat at their table making feel a part of their departments. I’ve also collaborated with student services staff, librarians, human resources, enrollment services, just to name a few, to plan a retreat-like setting for professional development like today. If you have a champion in this room today, I encourage you to make time for one another today. I’ve been lucky to work directly with two Anna Sue McNeil winners–the great Lolly Smith and the inspiring Peg Balachowski–when I was at Everett Community College and I’m grateful for that time. We don’t make enough time for that kind of gratitude for our colleagues. Let’s do that for ourselves today.

Setting the tone for today’s activities is truly an honor and I’ll admit an absolute joy. Preparing for such a responsibility carries with it all of the love and caring that goes into teaching a class without the hard work of assessment. Without the hard work of endless student emails. Without the hard work of teaching in 21st century.

Standing in front of  you today, I am not a teacher nor are you my students, but rather you are my peers, my colleagues, my network, and my future friends. What happens here today is something I will reflect on for months to come, and although I left the great SBCTC for the private sector; I’m now with a company, Lumen Learning, who is committed to the success of the very demographic we serve–and I have to be honest–I still think of the SBCTC as “us.” And I think I always will.  

I am committed to our success, and I’m very proud of this system.

We welcome all learners with our open door policy, and our jobs as community college educators present new challenges and responsibilities in the 21st century classroom. Teacher collaboration is more important than ever, yet studies show that faculty are increasingly isolated and carry greater responsibilities than their predecessors. Rather than turn the corner towards despair and teacher burnout, let’s take this moment to (re)envision pathways for flexible and open professional learning. Today I’d like to ask questions that we won’t be able to answer, but it’s the start of a conversation we need to have.

What are useful creative ways of using the digital space for teacher collaboration? What are some of the possible “guided pathways” for meaningful faculty collaboration? I’d like to encourage you to reflect on how you  can participate and help create a new community of practice(s) for teaching and learning in the digital age.

Teaching and Learning

When I talk about “teaching and learning,” I’m not just talking about or to teachers. I’m not just talking about degrees, certificates, or accomplishments. Whether you are faculty support, student services, administration, staff, or some other undefined role in betwixt and between, we all participate in teaching and learning on our campuses. When I say, “faculty” I mean all faculty. FT, tenured, part-time, adjunct, academic, professional technical, vocational, occupational, etc.

In short, if you are here today and you work on this campus, in this state, and in this consortium: student success is all of our jobs.

Let me repeat that: student success is all of our jobs.

And it’s an incredibly hard job that just gets harder.

Over the last year or so, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the notion of time as it relates to teaching and learning. As it relates to our work. As it relates to working with teachers and students.

A few years ago, I attended the American Association of Community Colleges conference, and the keynote was James Collins, the author of Good to Great, and he was a very charismatic speaker working the crowd with lots of data charts, statistics, research, and snazzy graphics. Much unlike the keynote you have here today. He used catch phrases everyone seemed to know with images of buses, hedgehogs, and foxes. I was not the intended audience for this message, I don’t typically read business management texts, but I got his point, he told leaders that they needed to understand who they needed to work with before they know the what that has to be done. In short, the people were more important than the company mission. 

This is quite the opposite of teaching. We get to create the the what (our curriculum) and we have no idea who will walk in the door (our students). And yet we still have to be leaders.

Turns out the president of my college was also in the audience for that same keynote. He came back to the campus with messages about how we need a Week Zero for students and that was going solve the woes of attrition. He declared that the there were several new federal initiatives that were going to help our students succeed. His letter to the campus had phrases like Achieve The Dream, the Completion Agenda, Guided Pathways, and although policy at the federal level seemed suddenly enlightened, things back home at the state and local were a bit austere with budget cuts. Sound familiar?

I will acknowledge that my lens at the director level was different than a president’s yet his message to the campus was clear: we need to care his about the Week 0 for students. Week 0, translated to me as somebody investing in mentoring and professional development for faculty, that we needed a Week -1 or even Week -2 for faculty. We can’t have students feel prepared before classes begin if faculty do not feel that way. How do we make that Week -1 happen when so many of you are off contract? Overbooked. Over committed. Over-committeed (that’s a new word). Overworked. Overextended. So very overworked.

We have a day like today. This is our Week -1 and sum of what we can do together today is greater than our parts. It’s time to relax into our own learning. And on a day so close to a new Star Wars film debut; I have to quote the mighty philosopher Yoda: “There is no try. Only do or do not.”

There Is No Try

To prepare for today, Michelle and Lorraine sent me an article to read and based on the title, here’s what I envisioned:

Screen Shot 2015-12-12 at 10.35.48 AM

In “Massages in the Library: Running a Course Design Spa for Faculty” by Karla Fribleyshe has a few quotes that help legitimize the idea that if we are going to create institutional and systemic change for education, faculty need open and flexible time to collaborate with other teachers. Perhaps if we can substantiate the need for this time for faculty, it will be eventually be easier to make this case for student learning.

Fribley states, “Ask any faculty member about their biggest challenge today, and many of them will say, “There’s never enough time!” Studies have shown that faculty work longer hours than their predecessors, and feel stress from their workloads.

Planning an event like today, she claims helps because,

a faculty member often ends up getting help in areas they hadn’t anticipated…The unstructured aspect of the day makes it easy for faculty to choose the help that interests them most, at the time that interests them. For the event planners, it provides an excellent opportunity to collaborate one-on-one with faculty on their courses.

That’s what today is. Time for you. Time to improve you. For you. Time to recover from the brutal schedule we call fall quarter. We can’t have an honest conversation about student success without addressing how we fail at being nice to ourselves. We can’t have an honest conversation about our problems without talking about how we can improve. I had a rule when I was an administrator, if you were going to complain about a problem, you had to bring a solution. Chicken Little, I would tell my team, doesn’t work here.

So how to take back the time? How do we remember that the sky will not fall if fail? We start by small gestures of kindness towards ourselves. Take a moment and think about running into one of your students five years from now. What do you hope they remember about your course? Your teaching? Your class?

Let’s take a moment to reflect. Take a blank sheet of paper in front of you. Draw a circle. What made you fall in love with your discipline? Now draw a circle around that circle. Write what you love teaching others. Now draw another circle. What do you love about the future of your career?  

Screen Shot 2015-12-12 at 11.15.42 AM

What you have drawn in those concentric circles connects and overlaps with the sessions we have planned for you today. That overlap will happen in the form of conversations, workshops, and having lunch together. All of you are Venn Diagrams that overlap make this college stronger. John Venn, the inventor, of the diagram describes his visual aid:

We endeavor to employ only symmetrical figures, such as should not only be an aid to reasoning, through the sense of sight, but should also be to some extent elegant in themselves.

Today’s program is elegant in itself. What I like about the program today are wonderful mentions of sustainability, teaching and learning, active learning, open education resources, engagement, and this buffet style professional learning can become meaningful pathways to help your students. Recognizing our motivations is the key. 

Motivation To Mentor

A couple of years ago, I presented quite a bit on mentoring. Having benefited from mentorship myself as an inexperienced teacher, I was curious about what motivates us to mentor others. Why teachers need mentors. And I think they do.

In Mentoring Adjunct Faculty To Improve Success, which is an article I wrote for NISOD, I wanted to support the idea that adjuncts–who are often unsupported and more isolated than their full-time peers–need mentors. Helping them directly benefits our students, I believe. 

The teacher ego can be a fragile thing, and cross-disciplinary mentorship can enable teachers to talk about pedagogical practices without belaboring details of content. Oftentimes, when two teachers from the same discipline collaborate, they end up talking about their intellectual interests and not instructional design concerns. While teachers need content-intensive discussions, they also need assistance with classroom management, time management, and assessment strategies.

We need to support teachers who have long-term goals on short-term contracts. How do we do that? We examine our motivation to teach. What we wrote in those circles and how they connect to others. We also find connections in hashtags, blogs, articles, and social media. The popular definition for this community is our personal learning network as lifelong learners. Those are pathways to collaboration.

If student success is all our jobs, then we want them to be lifelong learners.

In “Engendering Competence Among Adult Learners” a chapter in Enhancing Adult Motivation to Learn: A Comprehensive Guide for Teaching All Adults by Raymond Wlodkowski, he gives readers interested in education tips on how to engage adult learners.

Many students, especially adult returning students, have limited time for their studies.

Wlodkowski reminds us:

In some instances, adult learners need courses and training not so much because they need them but because they need jobs, the promotions, and the money for which these learning experiences are basic requirements. This is the reality for many adults, and it may be one about which they feel they have little choice. “Just tell me what to do” is their common refrain (p. 312).

Much of this text is to remind educators about the importance of empathy when many students have not had the experience of controlling, thus succeeding in education. In addition, he tries to give educators strategies for helping their adult students who are often burdened by their additional responsibilities.

He writes,

The strategies that relate to the motivational purposes of respect, self-efficacy, expectancy for success, and deepening engagement and challenge are most effective in this regard (p. 312).

Much of his advice is based on the face-to-face model of teaching yet his advice is transferrable and meaningful to online course designers and faculty. For those of you who work as mentors or in faculty support roles, his teachings on the “five pillars of motivating instruction–expertise, empathy, enthusiasm, clarity, and cultural responsiveness” are particularly useful when working with faculty (p. 93-94). If you’re faculty, those five pillars are the foundation to your pedagogy.

A basic way for an instructor to use the motivational framework is to take the four motivational conditions from the framework and to transpose each into questions to use as guidelines for selecting motivational strategies and learning activities for a lesson plan. The guided pathway of learning.

  1. Establishing Inclusion: How do we create or affirm a learning atmosphere in which we feel respected by and connected to one another.
  1. Developing Attitude: How do we create or affirm a favorable disposition toward learning through personal relevance and learner volition?
  1. Enhancing Meaning: How do we create engaging and challenging learning experiences that include learners’ perspectives and values?
  1. Engendering Competence: How do we create an understanding that learners have effectively learned something they value and perceive as authentic to their real world?

In What We Know About Guided Pathways by the CCRC, researchers have created a useful report about systemic change to promote academic success for community college students. A major strength of community and technical colleges is the ways in which students can select their courses as “a buffet.” This freedom of choice is especially useful for adult returning students exploring new learning opportunities and citizens interested in life-long learning.

For students who are trying to transfer to a four-year university or complete a certificate program, however, this freedom–especially for first-generation college students–can be unnecessarily confusing and challenging. Students make costly mistakes and lose momentum with their education. They often can’t find a pathway. This is especially true of a first generation student. And thankfully, we’re getting better about helping them.

The CCRC propose the following:

Making the kinds of institution-wide changes called for in the guided pathways reform model is challenging and requires committed leaders who can engage faculty and staff from across the college.

In terms of faculty professional development, they identify the current status quo for faculty:

  • Learning outcomes are focused on courses, not programs.
  • Instructors are often isolated and unsupported.
  • Metacognitive skills are considered outside the scope of instructio

Focusing on meaningful professional development for faculty would include the following:

  • Faculty collaborate to define and assess learning outcomes for entire programs.
  • Faculty are trained and supported to assess program learning outcomes and use results to improve instruction.
  • Supporting motivation and metacognition is an explicit instructional goal across programs.

A similar sentiment about personalizing learning is reflected in an interview with Maya Richardson featured in the blog post The Importance of Student Control of Learning, Especially For Working Adults.

The personalized learning part of it is taking ownership, she says, I think it motivates. As an adult learner, it’s really important to find that you have some control over—when I go in, I know what I want to learn. I hope I know what I want to learn, and I hope I learn it at the end.

That declaration of what we want to learn helps keep us on a sane pathway of learning. Our schedules in academia are often unrealistic and hectic. For every stressed out student, there is faculty member stressed twice as much.

The Growing Edge

In How To Stay Sane by Philippa Perry, there is a section titled “Learning” where she discusses neural plasticity, differing levels of stress, and psychotherapy. “Good stress” and “moderate levels of stress” promotes “the neural growth hormones that support learning” according to Perry (p. 75). She goes on to describe her work with a client:

To work at this level we cannot be too comfortable, because then new learning does not take place; but nor can we be too uncomfortable, for then we would in the zone where dissociation or panic takes over. Good work takes place on the boundary of comfort. Some psychotherapists refer to this place as ‘the growing edge’ or ‘a good-stress zone’…The good stress zone is where our brains are able to adapt, reconfigure and grow…

We must be doing something genuinely new, and must pay close attention, be emotionally engaged and keep at it.

New pathways will form if two or more of these conditions are met, but we will ideally meet all four at once (p. 73-83).

I love the use of “growing edge” in lieu of “cutting edge.” This growing edge kind of learning can be messy, unpredictable, and quite uncomfortable. Very unlike our academic training which values perfection. Showing up to any of these workshops today could be messy. A public declaration of admitting you don’t know much about something, but you want to learn.

Amy Collier and Jen Ross take up this idea with research on messy learning and I love their brilliant word: not-yetness.

So what does all of this mean for educators? Here are some ideas. Embracing not-yetness means making space for learning opportunities that:

promote creativity, play, exploration, awe

allow for more, not fewer, connections…

transcend bounds of time, space, location, course, and curriculum

The ill-defined, the un-prescribed, the messy can lead to the unexpected, the joyful.

Today might get a little messy. We might discover some paths that we have not explored. We might learn how our Venn Diagrams of motivation overlap with others. Our path may join up with others. That can be joyful.

Mike Caulfield, the director of Blended and Networked Learning at WSU-Vancouver–a university where I hope a lot of local Clark College students may transfer–writes extensively about the future of online collaboration, teaching, and learning. How we connect on the internet and how we use the digital space to collaborate, and I’m quite the fan of the future he’d like to see for teaching and learning. He conjures a vision of a curated and cultivated garden in his latest keynote. And although I’m using his words a bit out of context, this paragraph conjures up a lovely image of a garden for teaching and learning. 

He writes,

This is true of everything in the garden. Each flower, tree, and vine is seen in relation to the whole by the gardener so that the visitors can have unique yet coherent experiences as they find their own paths through the garden. We create the garden as a sort of experience generator, capable of infinite expression and meaning.

That’s my hope for today. I’d like for us to spend some time in the garden created by the planners of today so that the guided pathways we are creating for our students are beautiful, creative, changing, and awe inspiring.  

Let me conclude with the words of Jen Whetham to bring this path full circle. Especially now since I have mixed metaphors for almost an hour, I’d like to close with mentioning my best failure of 2014-2015. The “Bring Your Dead” scene from Monty Python’s Holy Grail sums up my FLC failure, and Jen somehow assured me that what we did was useful. Our path of failure may guide others towards success. A year’s worth of work that just fell apart somehow became something else in other people’s gardens. She wrote:

This is emergent work, folks, and I appreciate the creativity and innovation you have shown as we begin to explore, as a system…[with] “Communities of Practice 2.0.”  We are…beginning to “tap into the potential of the digital space.”

This collaborative journey to continually push the purpose and function of [teaching and learning] is not a linear one.  It requires imagination and pushing boundaries and stepping well outside of our comfort zones.  It requires re-reading what could be perceived as “mistakes” as the potential for new direction and expansion.  We must continue to ask questions to which there are not simple or elegant answers.

There are no simple or elegant answers in teaching and learning.

Thank you.



About Alyson Indrunas

Always learning about instructional design, educational technology, professional development, adult education, and writing.
This entry was posted in All The Things and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Converging Pathways For Professional Learning

  1. Your “Growing Edge” sounds like Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development. Are you familiar with that concept? One challenge for teachers is finding that zone for students in different places.


  2. awilliams53 says:

    Nailed it. We’re all in this together.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Lisa Chamberlin says:

    Ah, kiddo, to think I knew you in the pre-January-10th-paycheck-club days and look at you now …keynoting! (I think I hear the strains of Celebrate in the background, don’t you? A little disco vibe for the New Year? Lol.) Way to go!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s