Are You Surrounded by Committed Colleagues?

Lead Features July / July 13, 2018

-by Thomas Mennella-

If you are reading this article right now, you are probably in a rare class of teacher. You are spending your own free time reading and exploring new ideas in education. Good for you! If you are a flipped practitioner, you took it upon yourself to redesign your entire teaching strategy for no other reason than you believed it would benefit your students’ learning. Your actions demonstrate an overwhelming commitment to your craft and to your heavy responsibility as an educator. Whether you are a K12 teacher or a college instructor, I dare say that when you look around at your colleagues for others like you, there are few to count. Unfortunately, it is more common to find a complacent teacher who is just doing things the way they’ve always been done because “that’s the way we do them,’’ to find a colleague who is going through the motions. Or worse still, to find a colleague who is watching the clock, counting the minutes to the end of the day, to the end of the year, or to retirement. It is incredibly challenging to be in the dedicated minority, and it’s exhausting. But, the social and emotional support needed to cure this exhaustion of isolation might be right here, under our noses, at FLGI and – ironically – I had to fly almost across the entire US to find it.

In mid-June, I flew from Massachusetts to Greeley, Colorado to attend the Third Annual Higher Education Flipped Learning Conference. This conference is unique in that it is the only one catering to higher education instructors who flip. There, I met fellow professors from New York, California, New Hampshire, Wyoming, and even Finland! And, though our disciplines, experiences, and ages differed, we all had one thing in common: we were tired. Most college years end in early May, but just because classes are over and grades are submitted does not mean that we’re done. There are course assessments to complete, reports to file, labs to clean, budgets to balance and other assorted loose ends to tie up. Only by early June are we typically all done. And soon after early June, those of us attending this conference hopped on a plane and flew to Denver for the hour-long drive to Greeley. And, we were tired.

My early conversations with my colleagues in Greeley centered largely around exhaustion, institutional woes, and this industry we call higher ed. “Wow, that’s a heavy teaching load. At my institution we have to teach….”; “You guys are 10% down in freshmen enrollment for next year? That’s nothing! We’re 25% down!”; “Did you see that recent article on the value of a college degree? Parents are starting to ask some really tough questions at our open houses.” Our nerves were frayed, our motivation was sapped, and there we were for two jam-packed days of the conference. Conferences can be exhausting affairs all on their own; intellectually stimulating, but also draining. This was going to be interesting. We were starting this experience on empty.

Our opening keynote set the stage perfectly. Karen Hessler, an FLGI Research Fellow, and leader in flipped instruction for nursing, opened the conference by sharing her lessons learned after implementing a flipped curriculum. From there, we moved on to presentations and workshops on evolving edtech, video creation and editing, managing a flipped curriculum in midwifery (where the presenter joined us virtually from Nottingham, England!), and many impressive research studies measuring a wide array of parameters in flipped courses.

Although I expected to be completely shot by the end of the first day, instead I found myself bursting with energy! Dinner that night was spent with over half a dozen new friends where the conversation was not of the ‘woe is me’ variety from earlier that morning, but had instead moved to the incredible power and potential of Flipped Learning.

My experience was not unique. On the morning of conference day two, all of us were reinvigorated. There was bustle and buzz even before the first workshop began. I heard no talk remotely similar to the topics from the morning before. Instead, the energy was positive, the conversations animated, and there was excitement for another day of professional development. Day two did not disappoint, and I was honored and humbled to help wrap the conference up as the closing keynote speaker.

On the plane ride home, I got out my pad and decided to begin brainstorming ideas for my contributions to this July issue of FLR on social and emotional support for teachers. But, I couldn’t focus… My thoughts kept returning to the conversations I’d had in Greeley, to my new friends, and to the many wonderful ideas, tips, and stories shared during the sessions that I had attended. My thoughts drifted, too, to the radical shift in mood that the conference had catalyzed. Most attendees arrived tired and spent, went through 48 hours of intense professional development and conversation, but emerged on the other side more rested and rejuvenated. How could that be possible…? I had to push that all aside, though, because it was time to think of how I could contribute to the conversation of supporting the mental well being of college professors and instructors for FLR. But, I couldn’t. I wanted to return to the glow of warm recollection that my time in Greeley had given me… And, then, what has probably already occurred to you, hit me: that Higher Education Flipped Learning conference had given me the very social and emotional support that I was trying to conceive of on that plane. It had been delivered to me when I wasn’t even looking. Why? And, how?

 Surround yourself with those who are like-minded. 

Upon reflection, I have come to realize why so many of us seemed so tired on that early first morning in Greeley. We’d just endured an entire academic year of working hard for little recognition, pioneering and innovating in a vacuum, and seeing so many colleagues coasting on auto-pilot while we agonized over every struggling student and every botched explanation. We, of the dedicated minority, had run nearly dry. But then, there we sat, together in Greeley. And as we talked, we came to understand that there were others like us here at the conference. As our peers presented, we experienced the collective excitement of new innovations and ideas. And, in Ross Hall of the University of Northern Colorado, host of the Higher Education Flipped Learning conference, we were in the dedicated majority, and it felt great! It was reinvigorating. The social and emotional value of being around others like ourselves was priceless. We fed off of each other in ways that I would never have anticipated. We lifted each other up in mood, energy-level, and inspiration. All we needed was each other. Perhaps, all we needed was to realize that we were not alone. We could handle being in the dedicated minority, after all, as long as we collectively understood that it wasn’t a minority of one.

On that plane ride home, looking at my blank pad of paper, I smiled, thinking these comforting thoughts, and then I jotted down the one idea that had been inspired by this adventure: ‘surround yourself with those who are like-minded.’ This is my advice to all of you. When you’re tired, when you’re disenfranchised or demotivated, take some time to reach out to some equally committed and dedicated colleagues. Find them right here, in the Flipped Learning community of practitioners at FLGI. Let them remind you that you’re not alone, and remind them of the same in kind. Take pride in your membership to the dedicated minority and help to make it a majority someday soon. Doing so will make all the difference, and your social and emotional health will thank you for it.

Thomas Mennella
Dr. Thomas Mennella Mennella
I have been an instructor in higher education for over ten years. Starting as a lecturer at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst, and then moving on to an Assistant Professorship at Delaware State University (DSU), a small public university, I experimented with Problem-Based Learning (PBL) and was an early-adopter of the iClicker student response system. Now an Associate Professor at Bay Path University, a private liberal arts institution in western Massachusetts, I primarily teach Genetics, Cell and Molecular Biology. I am Flipped Learning 3.0 Level -II Certified and a founding member of the FLGI International Faculty.

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1 Comment

on August 7, 2018

Hello Thomas, thank you for sharing your experience from attending the conference. I also believe that connecting and being surrounded by other FL practitioners in our FLGI community is inspiring and motivating. Congratulation on your closing speech!

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