I taught basic writing in English at two community colleges in New Mexico before retiring in 2019. My students tended to be motivated; otherwise, they wouldn’t have been to college at all. Yet many had difficulty concentrating and understanding what they were reading.
And even though they were high school graduates, many were on the verge of literacy. In 2017, New Mexico had an 83.5% literacy rate, the seventh lowest among the 50 states, and one of the highest dropout rates. In 2021, New Mexico had the fourth lowest per capita income; many of my students came from low income families where they were encouraged to earn and not to learn.
At first it was a struggle to engage my students, but I tried to open their minds. Helping them progress was a priority for me, so that they could participate more effectively in a class community. I taught them a few ways to eliminate negative thoughts about themselves. I told them that they weren’t stuck with their current level of “smart” and that they could increase their intelligence and talent through their dedication and hard work.
Fortunately, I also found innovative ways to develop their basic skills in the English classes I was teaching. It was a pleasure to see my students explore thinking, reading and writing in a way that was new to them.
The methods I have developed appeal to the natural curiosity and desire to improve that is found everywhere among community college students.
I believe the methods I have developed appeal to the natural curiosity and desire to improve that is found everywhere in community college students. I have taught at four-year universities and find that community college students are generally more excited to learn than their four-year counterparts.
Many community college students are under pressure to take jobs and provide income for their families. They have to make strenuous efforts to get the money and make the time to go to school, while many four-year-old college students find it easier because of parental support, especially financial support.
Related: How declining community college students are a big deal to the economy
A student I’ll call Brian A. was a tough case. In a diary entry he wrote that his parents told him that he was born with a certain level of intelligence and talent that he could not change.
“My parents say that everyone in our family, my brothers and my cousins, are all just average good when it comes to being smart, and that’s why we’re all C students,” he said. he writes.
I gave Brian four exercises as a thirty day challenge:
- Take a short brisk walk every day for thirty days
- Explore a new site every day for thirty days
- Tell a new joke every day for thirty days
- Write a diary page every day for thirty days. Leave part of this page about your goals.
I also told Brian to monitor her self-esteem for thirty days and see if she gets stronger.
At the end of the thirty days, Brian no longer considered himself a C student. In his diary he wrote that he could now see himself as a work in progress, and that he had come to realize that he could. always improve.
Because I have learned that students thrive when they write about themselves, I often started my class by asking them to write a journal about their passions, dreams, and career goals. Although it took a little coaching and cajoling, the students became enthusiastic. Many have taken pride in the knowledge they have gained about themselves.
I was constantly encouraging the students. I looked for opportunities for individuals to explore new topics and broaden their learning. I did my best to recognize their strengths and accomplishments more than the areas in which they needed improvement.
I also encouraged my students to give up their phones, their main learning distraction. They had to turn off their phones completely in the classroom. If I caught someone using their phone, I would grab them and put them in my hat until class was over.
The results that I have obtained are students who have become much more attentive and participatory. They developed new levels of motivation and self-knowledge.
Many of my students got involved in their academic work more deeply than they ever had before. I have convinced many of the essential fact that editing and revising are the most important aspects of writing. They rewrote their work and dug in their handwriting as an important part of themselves, not just as schoolwork that had always been required. When they became sufficiently interested in their own writing processes, they created portfolios of successive drafts of their essays and wrote about how and why they did their revisions.
Several students have taken graduate programs to become teachers and counselors. One became a university professor.
The essence of what I have done and continue to do is my constant emphasis on the positive achievements of my students. This accent, I believe, could help other community college professors bring enthusiasm and motivation into their classrooms.
Richard Leon Linfield taught English, Philosophy, World Religions, and Film Studies at nine colleges and universities, including the College of Santa Fe and Central New Mexico Community College. Since 2007, together with his wife, Leilani Darling, JD, he has produced SuccessinCollegeStudies.com, a website helping students succeed.
This story about teaching at community college was produced by The Hechinger report, an independent, non-profit news organization focused on inequalities and innovation in education. Sign up for The Hechinger newsletter.