Undercover Professor: How Becoming a Student Made Me a Better Teacher

By Mike Cross

Three years ago, I graduated with an associate degree in liberal arts from Northern Essex Community College (NECC) in Haverhill, Mass. Although I was one of over a thousand students to graduate that day, my situation was a little different than those of my peers. You see, I am a full-time faculty member at NECC with a Ph.D. in organic chemistry.

I had decided the year before to go undercover by enrolling as a student. Graduation day marked the end of an intense year of juggling school, work, and family responsibilities. Since that day I have been asked two questions whenever someone hears about my experience: “Why on earth would you do such a thing?” and “What did you learn?”

The answer to the first question is simple. I wanted to understand some of the challenges my adult students were facing. I wanted to experience firsthand the struggle of transferring credits, taking the ACCUPLACER placement exam, registering for and attending classes—all while maintaining a full-time job and caring for my three children. This was very different from my days as an undergraduate at a research university where I was a full-time student, fresh out of high school, with a part-time job and no spouse or kids. My hope was that my experiences would help me to better understand the reasons some students drop out while others are able to push through.

What did I learn from the experience? I gained many insights into the struggles of my students and the minds of my fellow educators, but I’d like to focus on five key points with suggestions on what colleges can do to improve.

1. Some of the barriers to student success are small and easily addressed.

Many barriers to student success are small, but they are everywhere. From day one, I was confronted by tiny hurdles. While registering, I was told I had to find and bring in my high school diploma. The fact that I had a sealed transcript of the courses I took while earning a bachelor degree and doctorate wouldn’t suffice. When I took the ACCUPLACER exam, I found that the room was uncomfortably cold and loud. In one classroom, I found the chairs to be so uncomfortable I had a hard time concentrating.

Are any of these issues catastrophic? Of course not. But they are frustrating and they are certainly avoidable. When a student is struggling, even the smallest thing can be the deciding factor in whether or not they decide the hassle of college is worth it. What can we do to help? The simplest solution is to ask our students—and then take their feedback seriously. If students feel that they are heard, they are much more likely to push through the small stuff in order to achieve their goals.

2. Adjunct faculty are unsung heroes, and our colleges need to support them.

I made sure to take classes in all different formats: face-to-face, hybrid, online. And I also made sure to take classes from both full-time and part-time instructors. I had some amazing classes with fabulous full-time instructors but what surprised me the most was the commitment of our part-time instructors. Despite the fact that they are not paid to hold office hours (and many didn’t have an office at all), they often went above and beyond the call of duty to help students.

In fact, one of my favorite classes was a public speaking course taught by an extremely talented adjunct instructor. (On a side note, isn’t it tragic that despite spending every day of my career in front of a classroom of students I had never before taken a public speaking course?) The course was well-organized with clear expectations. The instructor knew that public speaking is a common fear and used humor to help students overcome their fears. He gave excellent feedback and encouraged students to give one another feedback as well.

Since adjunct faculty make such important contributions to the education of our students, we need to be sure they have the support they need. Adjunct instructors often feel isolated and don’t have the same access to resources. I’m pleased that in recent years, my college has increased the resources available to adjunct faculty through our Center for Professional Development. We have adjunct faculty fellows who build community among our adjunct faculty through social media, professional development events and an online toolkit, which provides easy access to needed resources.

3. We need to be clear about what constitutes cheating.

Cheating is rampant … but most students don’t consider what they’re doing to be cheating. In most of my classes, I was able to go incognito for much of the semester. Sitting alongside my fellow students opened my eyes to the sophistication of modern cheating. Gone are the days of crib sheets and bribing your roommate to do your math homework. In today’s classroom, students are constantly pulling up notes on their phone or watch. They use (and gladly share) test bank answers downloaded from any number of internet “study” sites. If you have a credit card, you can have someone online write your research paper or solve your take-home exam for you.

Cheating has always been a problem, so I wasn’t surprised to see that it is still an issue today. But I was surprised to find that many students don’t consider what they are doing to be cheating. They consider texting answers to classmates just “being a good friend.” Downloading publisher test banks is simply “using your resources.” Although it’s impossible to prevent all cheating, I believe the fastest and easiest way an instructor can reduce it is to make it clear what you consider to be cheating. Going over the do’s and don’ts of ethical behavior during the first week of class is a major deterrent to cheating for many students.

4. Faculty members should push through the fear and be open to new experiences that provide them with feedback on their teaching.

At the start of each semester as a covert “student,” I would try to meet with each of my instructors and let them know who I was before showing up to the first day of class. In almost every case, the faculty member would appear nervous, but would welcome me to the class and ask me to provide them with feedback throughout the semester.

There were a few professors who were not so open to having me as a student. One didn’t want me in her class for fear that I was secretly evaluating her for the administration. Another told me that by enrolling in classes at our community college, I was undervaluing the “real education” I had received during my previous undergraduate career at a university.

No one is immune to impostor syndrome. It is natural to feel anxious about new experiences, especially when those experiences may expose our shortcomings (either real or imagined). I have felt this myself as I have had a colleague take one of my classes recently. It’s an intimidating experience, but I have tried to use it as a chance to reevaluate and improve my teaching. We should be open to feedback and criticism, whatever the source may be.

Over the past year I have had the privilege of co-facilitating the Teaching and Learning Academy with one of our adjunct faculty fellows (and my former professor). The academy allows faculty to come together in a relaxed environment and discuss life in the classroom. Over the course of the semester, we visit each other’s classes and share honest feedback. Opportunities like this improve our teaching and build our sense of community.

5. It’s easy to forget what it is like to be student.

How many times have you heard colleagues say, “When I was a student …”? This phrase is usually followed by a condemnation of the current crop of students. We forget that we are just like our students. For example, in one of my classes, the professor had a strict no cell phone policy. Yet while students were doing group work, he would pull out his cell phone to check social media. We must hold ourselves to a higher standard than our students. If faculty lock the door to prevent late students from entering, they must be sure to never be tardy themselves. If we expect students to turn in work on time, we should be prepared to return exams and give feedback in a timely manner.

While not every experience I had while undercover was positive, it was truly the best professional development of my career. It rekindled my love of learning. When I registered for classes at NECC I found out that I was required to take English Composition II, as I had never actually taken it as an undergraduate. Despite my dread, I ended up loving the course. When my instructor informed me that she would like to nominate one of my papers for a writing award, I almost cried. This was the first time in all of my years of higher education that someone told me that I was good at writing.

Too often we refer to a Ph.D. as a terminal degree, as though our education is dead (or at least on life support). Most of us went into education because we love to learn, but between grading, curriculum development and committee work, it’s easy to forget the thrill of learning something new. Sitting alongside my students as we learned together not only helped me better appreciate their daily struggles, but it reminded me that we are on this educational journey together.

Mike Cross is a professor of chemistry at Northern Essex Community College.



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