Overcoming teaching challenges


Teaching challenges
New faculty members will face a number of challenges as they begin their role as an academic.  Each institution, college, department and classroom may face a unique combination of challenges, but they fall into some general categories.  Accomplished faculty are not daunted by these challenges, and if new faculty members anticipate them and navigate around, over or through them, their level of success will increase, along with their level of satisfaction.  A few of the common categories are explored, with some suggestions for overcoming them.  Talk with colleagues, check on campus policies, brainstorm with students, and be creative.  Addressing challenges with a sense of humor helps place the challenges in perspective.

Resource availability
The availability of resources in institutions varies widely.  When interviewing, it is helpful to ask about teaching resources that are of importance to your style of teaching.  These may include technology, space, laboratory supplies, models, simulations, specimens, library materials, support for writing/math/technology skills, and many others.  Know the budget available to support your teaching, and how to order needed materials.  Look for teaching support in the form of grants, equipment, mentoring, and professional development activities.  If your campus does not provide them, there may be community, professional or governmental organizations or associations that may help.  Being an accomplished instructor can be a bit like being a scavenger, collecting materials over a lifetime of teaching to develop a comprehensive set of teaching support materials.  New faculty members should begin developing a wish list of materials and thinking about ways to go about procuring them.

Student skills
All faculty face students with a wide range of skills, abilities, and experiences. Being aware of the range and how to support students to help them each learn is a characteristic of an accomplished instructor.  There are external supports on each campus in the form of centers for writing, math, and computer skills.  There are counseling centers to help students address emotional issues that may interfere with learning.  Some skills are discipline specific and need to be explicitly taught.  These can be incorporated into course content, or required as modules to be completed outside of class, as appropriate.  Accomplished faculty address the diverse needs of their students by becoming aware of the needs, locating resources to support students and making referrals, and teaching those skills that are critical to student learning success.

Student behavior
In spite of college students being adults, their expectations for what is appropriate in a college classroom varies widely.  New faculty members need to address behavior directly.  Most often appropriate behavior is addressed in the form of policies outlined in the course syllabus and discussed when going over the syllabus.  If issues still arise, it is most effective to address them quickly and directly.  Issues may include: plagiarism, ethical dilemmas, rudeness, disrespect, attendance, lack of preparation for class, interruptions or inattentiveness, among others.  New faculty members are most successful when they have anticipated the possible issues, and determined a response in advance.  Many issues are appropriately addressed in the syllabus, and discussed at the beginning of class.  This practice helps avoid many problems by clarifying expectations and consequences before an incident occurs.

Classroom environment
College classrooms are shared by many people and this multi-use situation can cause challenges.  Classrooms may be occupied when class is scheduled to begin, tables and desks may be dirty, trash left behind by previous students, trash cans overflowing, whiteboards may be filled with writing from other classes, equipment broken or malfunctioning, or furniture may have been rearranged.  Some classes have more enrolled students than chairs, others are awkwardly arranged for the style of teaching planned.  Many campuses are overcrowded leaving few options, but new faculty members can be prepared by looking at the space assigned and finding out if there are alternative spaces available, alternative ways to arrange the room, replacement equipment or repair personnel available, or alternative equipment types to support their teaching.  You will never know unless you ask, and do a bit of investigation.  Sometimes the squeaky wheel does get the grease.

Issues of difference
University faculty members have long noted particular challenges faced by individuals who differ from their colleagues and community in any of a number of ways.  This may include gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, urban / rural, or political commitments, among others.  While typically a university community better addresses these issues of difference than other settings, there remain some particular challenges for instructors, and these may be particularly acute for new faculty members.  These situations are best addressed directly, openly and early on to minimize the impact on an individual’s career.


Tips for Handling General Challenges

Tomorrow’s Professor Mailing List
Stanford Center for Teaching and Learning
This site lists numerous posts on topics related to being an effective professor.

Problems, Pitfalls, Booby Traps & Surprises
Graduate School of Arts & Sciences Teaching Center, Columbia University
This site offers a list of brief tips for when the unexpected happens.

Teaching Challenges
MERLOT Pedagogy Portal
This collection of challenges identified by faculty offers links to materials others have used to address them.  Issues include: accessibility, plagiarism, classroom civility, ethics and values, first day of class, information literacy, large classes, motivating students, and writing / math skill development.

Narratives Supporting Excellent Teaching (NEXT)
Turns, J., University of Washington
This NSF sponsored project focuses on teaching challenges of engineering educators and a website to address them. This searchable site offers ways faculty have addressed a number of issues, including: low student ratings, being swamped, bored students, difficult students, and poor student performance, among others.

Managing Teaching Loads and Finding Time for Reflection and Renewal
King, R.M., (January, 2002) Association for Psychological Science, APS Observer, Vol. 15, No. 1. Northern Virginia Community College
These teaching tips address the drain on time and energy of being an effective instructor.

Inventive Faculty Development Strategies
Knobloch, N.A., (2005). University of Illinois
This powerpoint presentation addresses challenges faculty face with three strategies: active learning, inquiry learning, and service learning.  Examples of faculty using each are provided, along with links for each.

Educause Names Top Teaching with Technology Challenges for 2009
The Chronicle of Higher Education (January 9, 2009)
These challenges were selected by focus groups, surveys, face-to-face brainstorming and a final vote.

The Faculty Excellence Interview Series
University of Maryland University College
This series of interviews by distinguished faculty address how challenges are handled.  They come from a wide range of disciplines, including biology, communications, math, psychology, computer science and business.  The faculty members teach in Asia, Europe and the United States.

Challenges of Multicultural Faculty

Multicultural Faculty and the Challenges they Face from Students and Administration: A Multiracial Perspective
Signal, S.M., Peon-Casanova, L., & Foss, M.S. (2004). Ninth annual conference of People of Color in Predominantly White Institutions (POCPWI)
The focus of this presentation is identification of Stereotypes and challenges multiracial faculty face, including examination of ways to effectively deal with these challenges, and ways all faculty of color can work to bring these issues to the forefront to change perceptions.

Anti-Racist Pedagogy: Challenges Faced by Faculty of Color in Schools of Nursing
Hassouneh, D. (July, 2006). Journal of Nursing Education, Vol. 45. No. 7
Despite significant effects of systems of oppression on health, nursing education tends not to include anti-racist pedagogy in its curricula, instead focusing more narrowly on culture.  In contrast, anti-racist pedagogy educates in ways that make racialized power relations explicit.

Cross-Cultural Mentoring for Faculty of Color
Barrett, R. K., (2005), Department of African American Studies, Loyola Marymount University, Ace Department Chair Online Resource Center
This article is mean to highlight good departmental practices and resources to help women and faculty of color thrive and contribute to the academic experience.

International Faculty Members: Challenges in Teaching
Early Career Geoscience Faculty: Teaching, Research and Managing Your Career, On the Cutting Edge,
Professional Development for Geoscience Faculty. Carleton College
This site provides vignettes by faculty who have faced challenges, and how they have addressed them.

Challenges of Teaching in a Distance Education Environment

Distance Education: Facing the Faculty Challenge
Bower, B.L. (Summer, 2001). Department of Educational Leadership, Florida State University, Online Journal of Distance Learning, Vol. 4, No 2 Faculty resist distance learning for a number of reasons, in particular the adequacy of institutional support, change in interpersonal relations, and quality.

Advantages and Challenges of Hybrid Courses
Faculty Resources, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee
This site outlines a number of common challenges with a combination of face-to-face and online courses.

Challenges of Female Faculty

Women Faculty Forum
Yale University
This forum addresses issues of gender equity throughout the university, promotes collaboration and networking on gender issues, and supports scholarship on gender, and scholarship about and by women.

References on Chilly Climate for Women Faculty in Academe
Freyd, J., Psychology, & Johnson, J.Q., Library, University of Oregon
This page contains references on biases, achieving balance, and pay inequities.

A Younger Female Faculty Perspective
A feminist perspective (January, 2007)
This blog addresses the particular challenges this young female faculty member has faced, in contrast to those her male colleagues experience.

Successes, Challenges Seen in Report on Women Faculty
Delgado, R. (2004). Stanford University News
A three-year study comparing female and male faculty members shows no significant gender based differences in measures of overall satisfaction or in non-salary compensation and support in most parts of the university.  It also pointed out some disparities that need further study.

UCSF Leaders Gather to Present Results, Examine Challenges in Nurturing Diversity
Shukla, S. (2009). Nurturing Diversity at University of California San Francisco News
Campus leaders report on progress made in creating a more diverse campus community, address gaps and share plans in this article.

Challenges with GLBTQ Stereotypes

Faculty Panel Challenges Stereotypes
Madormo, M. (2008). The BC Heights.com, The independent student newspaper of Boston College
This “guess who’s gay” panel sponsored by Lambda and GLBTQ Leadership Council allowed audience members to ask questions of a panel of faculty to determine whether they were GLBTQ or straight.  It was intended to break stereotypes surrounding the GLBTQ community.

Challenges for Traveling Faculty

Adjusting to a New Culture
International Travel Handbook, Faculty of Arts and Science, Harvard University
This handbook entry addresses issues of cultural difference when traveling/studying abroad, including differences in law, treatment and cultural expectations of what is appropriate.

Challenges due to Religious Diversity

Religious Diversity: Challenges and Opportunities in the College Classroom
Letwica, M., Associate Professor of Religion, Concordia College (2008). Diversity and Democrazy, Vol. 11, No. 1. Diversity Web,
An Interactive Resource Hub for Higher Education

This article addresses issues of religion that arise in college classrooms and suggests ways to respond and take the opportunity to teach.

Religious Diversity, Epistemic Humility, and Religious Tolerance
Kraft, J. Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Religion. Huston-Tilletson University (2005). Faculty Resource Network, New York University
This paper uses an externalist epistemology and philosophy of mind as a foundation for an attitude of epistemic humility towards the beliefs one retains in light of religious diversity.

Challenges for Universities

New Challenges: Demographic, Economic, Cultural, and Political
Transforming the U (2007). University of Minnesota
This article outlines a number of challenges facing universities generally in the increasingly diverse culture in which we live.

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