Category Archives: Higher Ed

1 Year of COVID Later

This time last year, I was standing with an umbrella in the pouring rain in an empty parking lot at our Governor-ordered shut down college. It felt apocalyptic. Like the world was ending. I also had virtually no sleep and had spent nearly every waking hour for two weeks working on an academic continuity plan to ensure our students would be successful despite a sudden shift to remote learning in a global pandemic. Just in case a shut down happened. I’m grateful for that work because we were prepared, much more prepared than others. And that’s why on this day last year, I was dealing web cams, doc cams, and headsets to faculty from the trunk of my car.

This morning I read an article in the P&C about the mental health impact of COVID-19. Faculty at Upstate colleges were interviewed during their reporting. One faculty member recounted losing a colleague to suicide in the midst of this crisis. Of her experience, she said, “While students were given resources to help them cope, the faculty weren’t and instead were worked to death.”

Worked to death. Well, that resonates.

Earlier today, I also shared the following with colleagues in leadership: “I also think we need to be cognizant of the fact that we have overworked (“worked to death,” as noted in this article I read this morning) our faculty in this time of chaos and crisis. They’ve done amazing work. I’ve had the opportunity to observe first-hand some of the ways they’ve really pulled through for our students in trying times. I’ve also witnessed them working at all hours of the night, on weekends, and without time off to be that amazing. And I’ve witnessed and experienced first-hand the dangers of burning the candle at both ends relentlessly. “

As #highered leaders, we MUST model self-care. We MUST prioritize mental health. We MUST actively support the mental health needs of faculty and staff (while the article and my above conversation were specifically about faculty, all of our staff are in the same metaphorical drowning boat). Passively offering resources is NOT enough. Not. Enough.

As I said when I first ran for City Council and someone asked a question about how we would help heal the divide in our city, “it starts with us, the leaders. We have to show how it’s done.” Different group of people. Different situation. Still true: it starts with leaders who model the desired behavior.

I did a terrible job during that first year of COVID. I was in survival mode. I didn’t prioritize my own self care. I modeled working yourself to death. And so I almost died.

Now that I’m much better, I also know I need to DO better.

So I’m trying. Sometimes it’s just small things.

Some I’m trying: Wellness Wednesday. No emails from leaders after 7 PM or on weekends. Stress and relaxation activities like Pamela lead yesterday and for our department in December. Laughing a lot in our meetings.

It was chaos last year. Now, as we enter recovery, we really have to 1) recognize we “worked people to death;” 2) do better (this cannot be our new norm).

We = me. And I’m telling you this because I feel strongly about it. And also to help hold myself accountable. #Healing2021 isn’t just about me. It’s all of us.

P&C article referenced: https://t.co/dM4ftDdjYJ

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Filed under Community College, Healing 2021, Higher Ed, Teaching & Learning

Virtual Snap Cup

This is another weekly activity we’ve started within my department as explained in my original email below. It’s been really great so far–I love seeing everyone celebrate themselves and each other!

Good morning, all.

I hope this Tuesday finds you well.  I am writing today to tell you about something I want to try: an ACF Virtual Snap Cup.  This is a modification on an activity that I used to do with my Freshman Seminar students.  I’ve attached that assignment for your reference.

Since we went remote because of the pandemic, it’s been harder for us to connect, and it’s been harder to celebrate the small successes every day that add up to the big successes at the end of a semester.  And I think celebrating those small successes is important.  Since we remain in this hybrid F2F-remote environment for the foreseeable future, I thought this might be a great way to ensure that we all celebrate those little successes and connect with one another by doing so.

And that’s what the virtual snap cup is about.  So first of all, if you do not know the origin of the snap cup idea, check out this clip from the movie Legally Blonde, where Elle explains it. Don’t worry: I won’t sing that song.  And like I said, we’re modifying a bit for the online environment.  I set up a survey monkey to collect anonymous praise notes.  Feel free to praise yourself! Did you do something really cool this week that worked out? Did you go above and beyond for a student, a colleague? You could even have a non-work success to celebrate.  And, of course, it’s not all about you! Be on the lookout for your co-workers.  Is there something for which they deserve praise? Did you see something or hear something that maybe the rest of us should know about? What should we celebrate this week?  Tell us in the anonymous virtual snap cup.

Once a week, I’ll check the virtual snap cup, and we can celebrate whatever successes you’ve shared. My hope is that this will let us “see” one another in a way we cannot while so many are working remotely or are distanced for safety. Also, burn out during the pandemic is real (read more about that here—it’s not you; it’s all of us!)—and this may be one way we can help to address that and maybe make a small positive effect on all of our mental health.  Is it a little cheesy? Maybe. I see [name redacted] rolling his eyes now. But let’s give it a try!  If it ends up being a bust, ok, but thanks in advance for playing along for now. 😊

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Wellness Wednesday

I recently read an article by Dr. Janet Zadina called “The Critical Next Two Years You Must Prepare for Now.”  At the end of the post, Dr. Zadina lists some strategies that other leaders are using to help their faculty.  One of those is “Wellness Wednesdays.” The idea of Wellness Wednesdays is that the school system or college offers advice or strategies once weekly for stress reduction.  I’ve decided to do that at the division level for our faculty.  This week was our first official Wellness Wednesday.  This was my message:

Good afternoon, all.

I don’t know about you, but this time last year, I could not have predicted that we’d here this time this year. As I mentioned in the virtual snap cup email the other day (thanks to all who’ve “snapped” someone!), many people are “hitting a wall” right now as the COVID pandemic continues to take its toll on us. As this article I shared explains, the pandemic has over-activated our stress systems.  The result: we’re more at-risk for burnout.

Did you know, though, that you can change your brain in just 20 seconds?  It’s legit—actual brain scientists have observed and recorded this phenomenon. It’s called neuroplasticity. And it can help us with this stress/burnout problem.  See, our brains are hard-wired to focus on the negative. That’s called “negativity bias,” and it was super helpful to our ancestors who relied on it to keep them alive when lions, and tigers, and bears (oh my!) were an everyday threat. We don’t really need that negativity bias so much now, though, and it can do more harm than good in situations like this where we’re over stressed.  But the good news is that we can change it (and improve our mental health and wellbeing) in just 20 seconds.  Make that 20 seconds a habit, and bam! Permanent brain change—plus better health. A strategy for this is called Notice-Shift-Rewire, and it’s explained in this article.  I can tell you I’ve personally had great experience with this technique, especially over the last year when in the midst of a global pandemic I became very ill for four months.  So like the article suggests, try it—once a day, every day for a week, and see what happens.  This may even be a strategy you could share with students!

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Filed under Community College, Higher Ed, Just For The Health of It

Just Another Manic Monday

And so ends another manic, double-masked Monday. And, no, I don’t care if you’re making fun of me. I could’ve died last year. Could die this year if I catch another bacterial infection. Not really ready for that. So, I’m all about that double Fauci mask! Props to my mother-in-law Tricia Hulehan for the cute cloth mask that matches my sweater dress. Props to China for the KN95. 🤷🏼‍♀️

Unpopular opinion: I like the new 385/85 interchange. On my way in to work (Greenville to Atlanta), I can usually save myself $3 by avoiding the toll road because it’s no longer necessary. WTG, SCDOT! (I said what I said) But this morning, I needed to take I-185. And there’s this moment, which I forgot about, when you pull up over the hill just before the second toll heading south when the mountains appear on the horizon, and it’s beautiful. It always makes me stop a second, #grateful for that view.

And so tonight I go to bed grateful for that view of the mountains on my morning commute; for 102.5 The Lake, which was legit rocking my commute today; and face masks, the cute one my MIL made and gave to me as well as the ones all my co-workers wear to protect me, themselves, our loved ones, and our students and their loved ones too. Sleep well, friends. 💜

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Filed under C-Diff, Community College, Just For The Health of It, My Life, Practicing Gratitude

On Greek Life

Have you read my disclaimer? If not, now’s a good time.

Note: I actually wrote this post about 2 months ago and never published it; however, in reflecting on the horrendous stories about Greek organizations currently in the spotlight, I revisited it and decided to go ahead and post it. Because, obviously, it’s still relevant.  Just insert “OSU and Penn State” alongside Clemson University as necessary. 

Tucker Hipps’s parents have every right to speak out and warn other parents “of college students who want to pledge a fraternity.” After all, what happened to Tucker is completely unacceptable.  While it’s important to note that the official investigation is not yet complete, I personally accept the consistent stories of the students from whom I’ve heard on the matter. As anyone who went to college knows, there’s the official story, and there’s what all the students know to be true.  In addition, it is well-known amongst those close to Clemson University and its student population that Greek life at Clemson is out of control–and has been for some time.  Between alcohol-related injuries and deaths and accusations (often founded) of sexual assault and misconduct, it’s clear there’s a problem. With that said, I feel compelled to point out that what’s happening at Clemson is not indicative of what happens in Greek life across the country.  Hazing is bad. Hazing can lead to death. That much is indisputable.  However, that’s not the way it is in every fraternity or every sorority.  It certainly wasn’t my experience as part of the Greek system.  I pledged a sorority.  And at no time was my life in jeopardy.  At no time did someone ask me to do something that compromised my values, my integrity, or my safety.  I did not experience the sort of peer pressure that Tucker reportedly did.  Rather, I found in my sorority a support system of women who helped me navigate the college experience.  As someone without a solid familial support system, this was incredibly important not only to my survival in college but also to my ability to thrive in college.  In my sorority I also learned the value of giving back to the community and to those in need.  I learned to speak up for myself and for the things I believe in.  I learned not to settle for less than my best or less than what I deserved.  Certainly, I experienced growing pains as I matured into adulthood; my sorority affiliation did not protect me from that. Rather, it nurtured my development. It helped me become who I am today.  The women I met helped form the woman I am today.  Some of them are still my strongest supporters, my closest confidantes, and the people upon whom I call in difficult and/or challenging times.  I learned to accept that kind of love and support and to give it back.  “To give much is to receive much” was our motto. And I learned to live by those words of wisdom during my time in my sorority. I was not just a part of my own sorority while in college; I was also part of the larger Panhellenic organization that governed all sororities and fraternities at my school.  Our sorority worked closely with the fraternities within that organization, and we socialized with the men in those fraternities regularly.  We dated those men, befriended those men. We pledged in the same semesters as them.  We shared our experiences. Later, we shared in welcoming new members to our organizations.  To say that hazing did not occur at all would be a lie, but to say that it happened in the ways it does within Clemson’s fraternal organizations today would also be a lie.  I hear what my students and their friends do to join those organizations–the risks they take, and I advise them that compromising their principles or safety is never worth the friendships they may earn in so doing.  That’s not just part of my job; it’s a part of who I am–based on what I believe. And that is a direct result of my own experience with Greek life. What happened on that bridge–and the subsequent cover-up by members of his fraternity–is not ok.  There should be serious repercussions for all those involved–especially for the upperclassmen who forced a young man-via peer pressure–to do something that could potentially (and ultimately did) endanger his life.  Fraternities at Clemson should be held accountable for their actions and their consistent and flagrant acts that violate the very principles of the organizations to which they belong.  Because what they are doing is not what Greek life is about. It’s not what my sorority was (and is today) about; it’s not what the fraternities of my day/time/place were about. What happened to Tucker Hipps was unacceptable.  But it is not representative of Greek life overall.

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Filed under Higher Ed, My Life, My Opinion, Ripped from the Headlines

Heading Home to Winthrop

This January, I’ll be headed back to my alma mater, Winthrop University to present at their annual Teaching & Learning Conference. My presentation is entitled “Creating a More Successful Maiden Voyage: Increasing First-Year Success for Under-resourced Students.”

Abstract:

The first-year of college is much like the maiden voyage of the Titanic. It’s exciting—new and different—a one-of-a-kind opportunity, full of promise. It’s also a little scary. And, sadly, for many students it can end in disaster. The odds of survival for first-time college students in many ways mirrors the experience of passengers on the Titanic:  62% of the first class passengers survived; 43% of 2nd class passengers made it; and only 25% of 3rd class passengers ever saw dry land again.[1] Much like the Titanic’s passengers, students from less advantaged backgrounds are at a greater risk of “sinking” in the sometimes rough waters they experience on their maiden voyage into post-secondary education. Today we see more and more underprepared and under-resourced students in our classrooms.  They lack not just the academic background to thrive but also the financial, personal, and support system resources that make all the difference in student success.  This session focuses on what we can do to help improve our under-resourced students’ odds of survival.

[1] http://www.icyousee.org/titanic.html

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Filed under Community College, Developmental Education, Higher Ed, My Life, Teaching & Learning

Teaching: It’s a Calling

Yesterday, I received an e-mail from a former student of mine—a beautiful caring, smart young woman who I taught as a freshman. She went on to transfer to a 4-year school, get her Bachelor’s Degree, and become a teacher. And she’s a great teacher. But like so many great teachers, she wonders if it’s worth it; and by it, I mean teaching—and the sacrifices one makes to continue fighting to do right, to make a difference, in spite of a system that actually discourages it.

At almost this exact time last year, I wrote a blog post called “Teaching: It’s More Than What I Do.” And I’m not sure if it’s the time of year or what, but I figure that sharing the exchange I had yesterday is a good reminder—not just to her but to me and to anyone else who teaches—of why we do what we do.

Her: How do you continue to want to be a teacher when so any things go wrong every day?

Me: I hold on to the very few things that go right. And try to remember them when things go wrong. It sounds like you’re having a rough day.

Her: I’m not sure. I decided two weeks ago that after this year I was not going to teach anymore. It wasn’t a day where something particularly wrong happened. I was just miserable and realized that is my normal. I’m just tired of being busy being miserable. It takes up my whole life, and I don’t know that it is worth it.

Me:

You are a teacher. Whether or not you do it in the context in which you currently work or not, you are a teacher. You always will be. Just today, after having read this message from you, I came across this line in a book (totally unrelated to work) I’m reading (Half Broke Horses by Jeanette Wells):

Teaching a calling

You have the calling, [name redacted]. It’s in you–it’s a part of who you are. I know this because it is a part of who I am too. And so whatever you ultimately decide to do to make a living–you will always be a teacher. You may, however, choose not to do it in the way you have been.

With that said, let me assure you of this: all the good teachers want to quit. All the good teachers get frustrated and tired and depressed and wonder whether or not it’s worth it. At LEAST once a year, I decide it’s my last year. Sometimes–it’s ten times a year that I make that declaration. And I really mean it. Because I also feel tired and miserable all of the time, and it is my normal. And then something happens–sometimes it’s the very smallest thing–and I realize I wouldn’t really be able to do anything else–not because I can’t or I’m not qualified or interested. I always end up being a teacher–even when I’m not a teacher. And then, I’m in for another year.

You asked me how I keep doing it. And I said I hold on to the few great moments and the hope & faith they give me that what I’m doing makes a difference–it counts. I have a giant bulletin board in my office with pictures and notes from students–a collection of ten years’ worth of students. I hold onto every little tiny glimmer and stick it to that board, so on the days when I really wonder if it’s worth it, I can look back on those words from actual students–and let them tell me whether or not it’s worth it. Usually, they convince me it is. Sometimes I have to look at it again. And again. And then again. And then I still want to quit.

This note from my giant bulletin board is actually from the student who e-mailed me yesterday--sent years ago.

This note from my giant bulletin board is actually from the student who e-mailed me yesterday–sent years ago.

But do you know why I want to quit? It almost never has to do with those students. It almost always has to do with all the other BS. The students? 9 times out of 10, even when the students are causing me grief–they’re not causing enough to make me want to walk out the door. And I don’t do what I do every day for anyone other than the students. And that makes it worthwhile for me. It’s worth it when their lives are changed–even in small ways–because of something I did, said, or created. It’s worth it if that ‘s only true of one out of every 500 students I see in a year. And so ultimately, I keep teaching because of them–for them–and because that’s who I am–a person who wants to make that difference–even when it’s small and even when it’s only one out of 500+ times.

And it’s who you are, too. You want to make that difference. And so you will keep teaching. Maybe it won’t be high school English. Maybe it won’t be public school. Because if you are truly miserable day-in and day-out and think you would be happy doing something else, somewhere else, then you owe it to yourself–and the world who needs you–to try something new. But you, [name redacted], will always be a teacher. And you will always change lives–and make the world a better place. You can’t not. You care too much. The downside of caring so much is that you also feel every failure as if it’s yours. You care so much that you give your all when maybe you should try to give a little less–but you couldn’t if you tried. You are also, like me, a perfectionist, and you don’t want to do anything less than the absolute best–which means you’ll always be busy, always doing more, always be forgetting to take time to relax and enjoy something other than your job, career, calling. But you should focus on doing those things. Because even if you move into another career–you will face the same problem. You will always give more. You will always give too much.

One of the best decisions I made was to make some rules to limit myself. I no longer answer student e-mails on weekends. I leave my laptop at work. I accept that not everything I need to do can be done in the 40-hour work week. And if it can’t all be done, then something will just not get done. I prioritize so that the thing that doesn’t get done isn’t going to be something that is actually detrimental to my students. Usually, it’s some administrative BS that I hate anyway.

Probably none of what I’ve written here is very useful other than this: I understand. It’s hard. And you have to do what’s best for you. But even if you leave the k-12 system, you will always be who you are: [name redacted], Teacher. And you will teach and mentor and change lives. One way or another. And however you choose to do it will be great.

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Plight of the Adjuncts, Part 4: It’s Wal-Mart Over Here

See…I have this disclaimer that you should probably read if you haven’t.

I’ve written already about the problem of office space for adjunct instructors. And I’ve discussed the problem of communication with students. I have also pointed out when adjuncts have been maligned in the media.

What I haven’t really talked about is the problem with adequate compensation. I think that’s really a given. But just for the record: according to the Adjunct Project, one of our local 2-year public institutions pays between $1,344 – $2,000 per course. Adjuncts are underpaid and overworked.  I have talked on multiple occasions about the corporatization of community college. And perhaps that corporatization is never more clear than when we look at the labor force.

Adjuncts (part-time, temporary employees) teach a majority of the classes at most institutions of higher education.

The parallels to Wal-Mart are obvious: not only are our instructors overworked and underpaid like Wal-Mart employees–but they are so underpaid as to be unable to make a living from teaching. Further, like Wal-Mart’s employees, adjuncts are not offered any insurance benefits. And like Wal-Mart, colleges have opted to cut adjunct teaching loads (hours) rather than face the possibility of having to pay for such benefits. Adjuncts at most institutions are now capped at 3-4 courses per semester. So if an institution is paying $1,344-$2,000/class, and an adjunct teaches 3-4 classes/semester for 2 semesters, he is making $10,725-$16,000/year. Notably, the federal poverty level for a household of 1 in 2014 is $11,670. For a family of 2 (some of our adjuncts have one or more children, in case you were wondering): $15,730.

The only real difference between our public colleges and Wal-Mart is that Wal-Mart is a big, multi-billion-dollar-making corporation. And public colleges are non-profit.

People who work outside Higher Education have no idea, usually, what it’s like for our adjuncts.  Heck, some people who work within institutions of Higher Education have no idea what it’s like.

This conversation I had this week is a good case in point:

Adjunct: How many office hours do I have to schedule?

Colleague: Well, full-time faculty are required to hold 8 regularly scheduled office hours per week, so it’s probably pro-rated…

Me: You are paid to do 3 hours for each class.

Colleague: Oh, so 3 hours a week.

Me: No. He’s paid to do 3 hours PER class.

Adjunct: 3 hours a semester?!?

Colleague: No way. That doesn’t make sense.

Me: I know, but yes–for each class, an adjunct is paid to do 3 office hours per SEMESTER. It’s on the contract.

Anyone who has seen our adjuncts squirreled away in closet corners, conferring with students between classes know that they do more than 3 “office hours” a semester. But that’s not the point: we already know they go above and beyond the call of duty. We already know they work harder and longer and more often than they’re compensated for. But just for the record: that’s how much we pay them to do: 3 hours a semester for office hours.

What message does that send about the value of our instructors to student success? Hmmm…

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Filed under Community College, Higher Ed, My Opinion, Teaching & Learning

Busy, busy, busy

It’s been a busy summer–which should be evident since I haven’t posted anything since April! Work, as always, is ridiculously busy–especially this time of year–contrary to popular belief.  I always just laugh when people ask, “Are you working this summer?”

Of course, I’m working. The College is open all summer long. I teach classes, and I work on a million and two projects that don’t get done during the busy fall and spring semesters, and I continue all the administrative duties required by my position–scheduling, hiring, training, curriculum revisions & development, program development., etc. And fires–I put out metaphorical fires nearly every day. I do triage every day. And that really makes it hard to keep up with anything that isn’t and immediate, urger, and important task.

Someone recently asked a group of us educators to volunteer for a project in which we record what exactly it is we do each week for 52 weeks, so as to get a sense of what our jobs really are.  That made me laugh, too. Trust me: you don’t want to know. It stresses me out just thinking about it.  I couldn’t do this job if I didn’t do it one step at a time…and even then, it’s incredibly high-stress. I live in the moment–dealing with those fires, doing the triage, and trying to keep from drowning in the other tasks that are supposed to make up my day-to-day job. I wouldn’t even be able to record everything I do; I wouldn’t have time.

Speaking of which, I need to go review my adjunct pool for the 50th time this week because I’m still short on instructors. And maybe this time, a qualified, available candidate will magically appear. 

Oh–yes. It is Saturday.

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The Plight of the Adjuncts (Part 2): Maligned by the Media?

Hey, there! Before you go further, have you read my disclaimer? Just checking.

This is not what I had planned as Part 2 of my adjunct series, but this morning Anne Kress, President of Monroe Community College, tweeted about a recent NY Times Op-Ed piece:

anne kress tweet

Color me interested. So I looked up the piece she referenced. And she’s right: Ugh.

We do have a problem with adjunct faculty in colleges.  I think I already made that clear. But this is not the problem:

“The colleges expect little of these teachers. Not surprisingly, they often act accordingly. They spend significantly less time than full-time teachers preparing for class, advising students or giving written or oral feedback. And they are far less likely to participate in instructional activities — like tutoring, academic goal setting or developing community-based projects — that can benefit students.”

First of all, I don’t know which colleges the authors of this piece are referring to in that first line, but it’s not any college with which I am personally familiar. But in my ten years of experience in the community college system, I have found that adjuncts are expected to do a great deal.  I would go so far as to say that they are basically expected to everything their full-time counterparts do–and then some–with fewer resources, less time, and virtually no compensation.  With so many of our courses being taught by adjunct faculty, the responsibility for student success, persistence, retention, graduation rates (or whatever the popular metric du jour is), rests squarely on their overburdened, under- compensated shoulders.

Second, most of the adjuncts I know accept that responsibility willingly–not because they are compensated for anything beyond the time they spend in the classroom but because they actually care about our students and their learning.  To be perfectly blunt, the assertion that adjunct faculty spend less time “preparing for class, advising students or giving written or oral feedback” is a crock. I have to wonder, again, what adjuncts these writers have worked with, spoken to, or observed (oh, right, I don’t think they have; I think they just skimmed the new CCSSE report.).  I have only my own experience to draw on, but in that experience, I have found that adjunct faculty spend just as much time as–if not more time than–full-time faculty on these activities. We have adjunct faculty actively engaged in advising students every day.  We have adjunct faculty who collaborate to create service-learning projects for students.  We have adjunct faculty who are on campus from 8:00 AM to 10:00 PM–and that time isn’t all spent in class.  We have adjunct faculty who are tutoring students in the hallway because they have no office space.  We have adjunct faculty meeting students in the library in their free time to give them a little extra help. We have adjunct faculty developing and designing entire curriculums.  And we have adjunct faculty who attend every possible professional development opportunity offered them.

The NY Times Editorial Board ought to be ashamed of themselves. Yes, there’s a problem, and yes it needs to be fixed.  But instead of maligning adjunct faculty in a call for “more money for higher salaries and professional development,” let’s try pointing to to good, selfless work they do every day–let’s recognize their efforts, and let’s make a call to reward those efforts appropriately. Because this call to action is where they have it right: we have to do better by our adjunct faculty.  The way we treat them does not encourage excellence–but they give it to us in spite of that–which the NY Times piece ignores. So for our part we need to stop marginalizing them and start embracing, encouraging, respecting, and rewarding them for their efforts–efforts that do make all the difference to our students.

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Filed under Community College, Higher Ed, Teaching & Learning