Whenever I tell someone that I am the Instructional Support Specialist at Middlesex Community College (MxCC) and then briefly explain what that means, I brace myself for their response:
“Wait…so you’re a TA?”
“You’re like a tutor?”
“What does that even mean?”
During an average work day, I am a tutor and I do function in similar ways to a TA. Saying that I am only a tutor or a TA, though, undermines the purpose of my job and why it was created in the first place.
My official job description boils down to three major responsibilities: teaching noncredit workshops about basic writing skills, serving as a supplemental instructor in certain composition classes, and tutoring the students enrolled in those classes. I also take on the usual roles that faculty members often find themselves inhabiting: I’m a therapist, coach, mentor, and cheerleader for students and, often, my co-workers. This post will focus on supplemental instruction as one strategy that MxCC has adopted to support developmental students. I hope not only to share information about my very specialized role in academia, but also to provide quick and simple strategies that all instructors can use when working with any students who may not have been fully prepared for the rigors of a composition or literature course.
In order to understand why MxCC’s English department created a full-time position with this emphasis on supplemental instruction, it’s important to understand the relationship between politics and education for Connecticut’s community college system. In 2012, the “Connecticut Public Act 12-40: An Act Concerning College Readiness and Completion” was passed. A more colloquial explanation of the act can be found here. As stated in the second link, PA 12-40 “direct[ed] public community colleges and state universities to reconfigure how remedial/developmental education is delivered.” The developmental courses from each community college in Connecticut were assessed and restructured to fit the act’s new requirements. For MxCC, this meant merging four separate three-credit classes (two levels of developmental reading and two levels of developmental writing) into one six-credit course: ENG 096 Introduction to College English. This class can be taken in one semester and, if successfully completed, will prepare students to take MxCC’s ENG 101 Composition course in their second semester.
In addition, the act also required colleges to offer embedded support within these courses. The Instructional Support Specialist position was created so the English department could provide a more stable, permanent support system for students enrolled in either ENG 096 or the other two new courses (The Accelerated Learning Program, which was created at the Community College of Baltimore County and adopted by MxCC, and ENG 101E, which involves students meeting for one extra contact hour per week) designed for developmental students who scored very close to the ENG 101 cut off on their placement tests. While MxCC first introduced supplemental instruction, or having a second person help students with their reading and writing skills during class time, to some composition classes in 2007, I was hired in 2014. Since then, I have worked closely with both full-time and part-time faculty to ensure that students are getting the support they need.
Politics often influence the structure of education and the ways in which our students learn, both in college and high school. Just this week, the state of Connecticut’s disparities in public education have been the focus of articles in both The New York Times and The New Yorker. I bring these articles up not to comment on their content, but to acknowledge that new college students at any institution arrive with a variety of past educational experiences. Regardless of where he or she went to high school, each student was taught different material, used different types of study skills, read different texts, and was assessed in different ways. Also, some students may not have retained the information they learned, especially if they took time off between high school and college. Transitioning to college can be a hard adjustment for any student, whether they place into honors or developmental coursework. While some students will easily adapt to and flourish in the college classroom, other students will struggle, and some of those students may be afraid to admit that they are struggling. It is important for students to understand and not be afraid to use the support services that exist at each of our institutions.
Working as a Supplemental Instructor
Each day, I never know exactly what I will be doing when I enter a classroom. On some days, I am greeted with a topic to teach while the primary instructor, my co-worker who is teaching the course, conferences with individual students. Since I have a background in teaching and the same qualifications as a faculty member, my co-workers feel comfortable putting me in charge of their classes. I often workshop thesis statements with students while the primary instructor holds conferences. Other days, I teach lessons on fragments and run-ons. Using this structure of having two instructors work together to teach the course helps to maximize class time. While one student discusses his writing with his instructor individually, the rest of the class can still be engaged and practice their reading, writing, or critical thinking skills.
On other days, I spend most of my time floating around the room, asking students if they need any help. They usually say no, but spending that thirty seconds checking in can cause students to pause and reflect on what they are doing, which often results in a “oh, wait, actually I do have a question” response from many students. Some students are more inclined to ask for help, and some students need more help than others. For these students, I usually end up kneeling by their desk or pulling up a seat next to them in order to take a closer look at their work. Primary instructors also keep me in the loop, often pointing out before class which students may need extra help based on the drafts that they have submitted.
Providing Support Outside of the Classroom
After most classes, the primary instructor and I have a quick conference to discuss which students are doing well, which students are doing okay, and which students are struggling. We then develop a plan so that we can best serve those struggling students. For example, my one co-worker and I will often sit down together with students to discuss their progress. While we are talking, she always slips in the real purpose of the conversation, which is to convince that student to come to my tutoring hours. We try to make the student feel as comfortable as possible while telling him that he needs help, and students who have taken this conversation seriously have gone on to make significant improvements in their writing. Last spring, my co-worker and I met with one student who a strong position for his research paper, but could not articulate his ideas due to grammar and word choice issues. He began meeting with me on a regular basis. Each time we met, I would read his paper out loud and ask him if he heard any errors. He began to pick up on those errors independently and even started to take control of the session by reading his own paper and self-correcting his work. He ended up not only passing his research paper, but also passing the course.
Supplemental Instruction Without a Supplemental Instructor
Based on my experiences in this unique position, I would advocate for three basic strategies that instructors can use in any composition or literature class: identifying which students may have difficulty in the course as early as possible, conferencing with all students about their progress during class, and encouraging outside tutoring. During the first week of classes, instructors in smaller composition courses often have students complete some sort of “ice breaker” to get to know each other. My personal favorite is having students pair up and introduce each other to the class because I can tailor the questions to ask about any potential challenges or obstacles students may encounter during the semester. I often ask students how many classes they are taking, if they are working, and how they feel about writing. Instructors who have limited class time or a large class size can still have students quickly write down this information. Instructors certainly do not, and I would argue should not, need to know a lot about their students’ personal lives, but these responses can help instructors to identify potentially at-risk students who may have difficulty passing the course.
Since most instructors do not have the luxury of a second person teaching their class while they conference with students, dedicating class time to writing while briefly talking to each student about their progress can be equally as effective. Instructors can either have students work on an upcoming assignment or design an activity that relates to the class’s current curriculum. While students are working on this task, the instructor can float around the room and briefly talk to each student. I also have one co-worker who arrives to class ten minutes early and spends that time saying hi to each student personally before asking those students who arrive early how their day was and if they have any questions. Other students then hear these conversations as they walk into the classroom, which creates a culture where most students will come to class early if they have any questions or problems. Spending even this short amount of time, either before or during class, checking in with students can help them feel more comfortable approaching their instructor with any questions they might have and can help instructors notice which students might benefit from other services offered on campus.
Introducing students to the services, such as tutoring, that an institution offers can be especially beneficial for any students who are hesitant to ask for help and for instructors who are juggling a wide variety of responsibilities or teaching introductory courses with large class sizes. At MxCC, the Academic Success Center has student tutors talk about tutoring in every single class during the first two weeks of the semester. During these conversations, both the tutors and instructors really try to emphasize that tutoring is for everyone and students who start going to tutoring early in their college career will have a much greater chance of completing their degree, as they are developing positive learning habits right away. Some of my former colleagues at other institutions have taken their classes on tours of the college’s tutoring center, or walked students to the tutoring center after class. When I worked at a school that only offered online tutoring, instructors would walk students through the process of submitting their essays during class time so that they used the service to get help with their writing. As my PALS colleague Shelli Homer thoughtfully discussed in her post “Physical, Mental, and Emotional Taxation in the Classroom,” being an educator often encompasses more than simply teaching students. It is important for faculty and staff to work together in order to ensure that anyone enrolling in a composition or literature course has the outside support he or she needs.