When Teachers Unexpectedly Learn

Teresa Graham Brett
Charles F. Behling
Jeffrey D. Brake
University of Michigan
October 2, 1998

In the winter term of 1997, we received an application from the Institute for Public Media Arts for the -ISM (N.) project. The project was established to partner with colleges and universities in offering a year-long course integrating video production, media literacy and diversity issues. One feature of the program was the requirement that the course be team-taught. Our team consisted of three members, a faculty member in psychology and two student affairs staff, one experienced in video production and another experienced in multicultural group facilitation. The course we offered was listed in the department of psychology and sponsored by the Program on Intergroup Relations Conflict and Community.

We began the year with 18 first-year and 1 second-year student. Excited about the work we were about to do with students, we entered the year focused on what learning opportunities and goals we had set for them. Our desire was to address issues of prejudice and discrimination, examined through psychological theories. Ultimately we hoped to encourage students to engage in action to create social justice. During the first semester students read autobiographies written by other students, studied theories of prejudice and discrimination, wrote their own autobiographies, and produced individual video diaries. We met as a class twice a week and the teaching team met outside of class once per week to debrief class and plan the next week. During the second semester, students examined a variety of multicultural issues and produced group video projects. Class met only once per week for 3 hours which allowed for more in-depth discussions and the viewing and production of video during class time. The instructors continued to meet weekly.

The course offered us a unique opportunity to partner across traditional university boundaries. Few student affairs staff have the opportunity to co-teach with faculty within the faculty member’s discipline. And few faculty are willing to open up their class to student affairs staff as a part of the teaching team. The nature of the project required expertise that could only be found in multiple individuals. This team-teaching structure envisioned by the -ISM (N.) project was incredibly challenging. In many ways, the process taught us more about the dynamics of power, identity, and student empowerment than we could have predicted or imagined. Because of our focus on the student learning outcomes, we spent little time up front negotiating our own teaching styles and ways of interacting both within and outside of the classroom. Throughout the year, our reflection processes revealed that we were learning as much or more about social justice and working in a multicultural setting than our students did.

We spent our first four weeks of the semester building a sense of community and a safe space in which students could express divergent viewpoints and challenge both us and their peers to move beyond their current world-view. As the semester progressed, we soon realized that we had far more material and work to be done and began to press the class with more content than experiential exercises. Although we created an expectation that they were also teachers of the course, we often took back control and power in the classroom through cutting short discussion and falling into more traditional student-teacher roles.

Despite our desire to create an equitable classroom and break down the traditional barriers between and within faculty and student affairs staff, we often fell into familiar behavioral patterns which mirrored our various roles and positions within the university as well as our social identities (gender, race, and age). Students’ own experiences in traditional classroom settings also allowed them to reinforce these roles and patterns of behavior. Several critical incidents in the classroom revealed that only through rigorous attention to power dynamics, can one create a partnership that values the various contributions of each member of the team and that creates space for students to engage actively in the learning process.

Despite the fact that students initially reinforced our movement back into traditional roles, they soon tired of our inability to create an equitable and democratic classroom. Toward the end of the first semester, they challenged us to live up to the promise that we had made in the beginning of the class. As a result of their criticisms and feedback, and our own process of self and team reflection, we began to recreate our environment collectively, attempting to meet the needs of the “paid” (“faculty/staff”) and “unpaid” (“student”) teachers of the course.

As part of the expectations of the project, we submitted both mid-year and final reports to the Institute for Public Media Arts, which gave us the chance to write and reflect on our experiences as teachers. This process of reflection and the time we spent talking together about our collective struggles in the course, became critical to our growth and learning. As both faculty and student affairs practitioners, we are so often concerned solely with student learning outcomes. Our experience in this course and the -ISM (N.) project reminded us that we are continuing to learn along with the students in our classes.

We needed to be open to the learning process as teachers, to be able to admit our mistakes with the students in our class, and make a commitment to creating a different space which allowed all of us, “paid” and “unpaid” teachers, to learn from each other. All of us stepped beyond our comfort zones, committed to an on-going process that would not be perfect, and as a result, gained more than each of us could individually in the class. This collaboration is not without a price. Entering into a teaching team which espouses the ideal that we can achieve social justice, requires a tremendous commitment of both time and energy. We also needed to give up the power that comes with doing what we know and have done before. The loss of control and the ability to stay in a process which may have unexpected outcomes, required us to acknowledge our fears, and work with each other and the students as partners.

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