Teaching adult students can be a transformative experience, for educators and students alike, when both immerse themselves in the learning experience through the exchange of ideas and discourse which sparks critical thinking. Teaching adults is more commonly called instruction or facilitation, and is often viewed as a specific function with associated requirements that depend upon the person’s status and classroom environment. Some persons choose to teach adults as a career in a traditional university and others choose a non-traditional route, such as an online school or corporate classroom.
But why does someone, or why would someone, decide to teach adults as a career choice? I have found there are persons who are good with the delivery of information, effective facilitating a learning process, or excel as public speakers, and those are often the underlying reasons for being in a classroom and holding a job related to some form of instruction. Other persons are subject matter experts or effective researchers, and they enjoy sharing their knowledge with students in the classroom.
Those reasons provide the basis for a teacher or instructor to be effective with the process of teaching or instruction, deliver a lecture in an engaging manner, or have the knowledge necessary to teach; however, what can further transform an instructor if he or she should seek to become a mentor and coach? More importantly, how does someone infuse their heart and soul into their teaching practice? Is it necessary for every instructor to care that much about their role? Is it important for the students to interact with someone who exhibits that type of passion? These are the questions I will explore further, based upon my work as an educator.
Influence of the Academic Environment
There are two types of academic environments, the traditional classroom and online environment. Most of my experience has been teaching adult students and faculty as students in non-traditional online classes. This is an important distinction to make as I have not been assigned the title of professor and I have not been assigned to teach in a traditional classroom, except for a few community college classes that were taught as an adjunct. Instead of preparing for weekly lectures, I have worked in an industry that requires classroom engagement and interactions during weekdays, weeknights, and on the weekends as well. In other words, there may not be stated hours; however, there is an expectation the students will be a top priority regardless of the day of week.
Also consider that in this environment I do not see my students, unless they have uploaded a photo or I hold a live seminar. I have no idea what most of my students often look like and that did take some getting used to as I came to the higher education field from a corporate training field, which means I have always interacted one-on-one with students. In a virtual environment, I am in constant communication with students as they need assistance or I complete my required facilitation tasks. This means I have learned how to take static, written communication and use it in a manner that can still convey a sense of warmth through the choice of words and tone used.
Consider the Adult Student’s Perspective
Now consider what the adult student might experience or feel when they enter the classroom. Based upon my experience in the non-traditional academic field, most students are working adults, whether they were my undergraduate or graduate students. This means their school work may not always be their only demand each week as they may have other responsibilities that includes a career and a family. These students usually seek out a degree for specific needs, often related to their career. When they interact with others in the classroom they are not always open-minded to begin with as they have their own beliefs, opinions, established patterns of thought, and habitual ways of thinking. They see the world in a particular manner and point of view.
Students also hold expectations, whether they express those expectations or not to their instructors. They expect the class, and others, to conform to what they want or need, confirm what they already believe, meet their personal and professional needs, and operate according to how they have experienced the world. Sometimes those expectations are met, and other times there is a clash of ideals, beliefs, and opinions. When expectations are not met, there can be a disconnect and that is when the instructor’s disposition and assistance matters most. Regardless of what students expect, they are interacting with an environment that is going to make demands of them, present ideas and information that may conflict with what they know or think or believe, and it is their instructor who is going to influence them and matter the most.
What is Heart and Soul for Teaching?
If the instructor matters so much for students, can an instructor simply adopt a caring and supportive attitude to help them engage in the learning process? From my experience, a caring instructor is more effective than someone who demands strict compliance and cannot empathize with students. What I am referring to though goes beyond caring and I refer to it as the heart and soul of teaching. For me, it has occurred as a product of time, along with a process of trial and error. When you put your heart and soul into a career, you stick with it during the times when you feel alive and are fully engaged in it, along with the times when it challenges you and teaches you new life lessons. When you put your heart and soul into something, and then you feel you have lost it, the joy seems to go out of your job and then it is time for a change of some kind.
Teaching has always been second nature for me. It is one of the first memories I had as a child, even before I knew what I was really doing, and throughout my career I found myself in a classroom no matter what my job titles might have been at the time. It was a natural progression for me to move into corporate training and then into higher education. Working as an online adjunct for many years did challenge the heart and soul I put into my career and I reached a point where the stressful conditions overcame me and I allowed it to create a negative mindset. I finally had to stop the excuses, unplug from technology, and take a sabbatical. I used that time to go back and remember who I am, why I love my career, and I came back renewed and reinvigorated. It was a matter of changing my focus from the conditions to the control I have over my thoughts.
For anyone who cares about their career, and believes they have put their heart and soul into their job or work, your students will notice it. They will be influenced by it, especially during the times when they feel challenged by something they have read, something they have heard, or something they are required to do. Your ability to care and empathize, while being a coach, mentor, and teacher, will serve you and them well. You are going to also feel challenged at times by circumstances, situations, conditions, and expectations. If you can stay focused on your ability to empower your students, and how much they depend upon your consistent attitude and disposition, perhaps you can maintain your balance during the challenging moments that do eventually subside.