All posts by Mary Anne Duggan

You Stay Messy, College

Even though I am a scientist, I was born a Libra, Baby! Although I hold no stock in the pseudoscience of astrology, I always felt good about all-things-Libra as my sign: balance, harmony, love, peace, justice. It just so happens Kim Kardashian and Gandhi are also Libras. How’s that for balance?

I do an activity with my Psychology 101 students where I provide the standard descriptions of Zodiac signs without their labels and ask students to pick the set that most applies to them. Do you know how often they are able to blindly select their own signs? Almost never. And yet, some students persist in their astrological beliefs and get quite agitated when their views are challenged. Arms are crossed, eyes go white, and audible sighs reverberate. This is the life of a college classroom – socially and emotionally “messy” at times.

Exhibit A from my teaching archives: Picture my student Paul weaving his favorite video game into a class discussion for about the hundredth time this semester, (never mind that this is an adolescent psychology course). Then see George who finally has enough and yells, “Would you please shut up!” Finally, visualize Libra-me struggling to restore balance and harmony in the class. Spoiler alert: It doesn’t end well on this particular day.

In an intellectually-rich college classroom, ideas clash. Personalities collide. Students engage in a foxtrot of give-and-take, and it is not always tea and crumpets. But, conflict is an essential part of learning. Damn, how the Libra in me hates this! However, to achieve longevity in teaching, it is essential to effectively work through conflict because on the other side is greater learning. There are many strategies to process conflict in the classroom, but below are three of my “go-to”s.

Calm the stress-response system

Conflict can activate the fight-flight reflex. When this happens, a cascade of stress hormones shuttle energy away from the thinking part of the brain to the large muscles to prepare for battle. When George yelled at Paul in my class, I had not yet learned important calming techniques. As a result, I simply blurted out, “That’s enough now!” à la my former kindergarten-teacher self. I was not capable in that moment of a more reasoned response.

Since that time, I have learned to be more mindful of what is happening live in the classroom. And, when I sense conflict arising, my first step is to deepen my breath — a good inhale through the nose and a slower exhale through the mouth — repeated a few times. I am mindful when I sense my heart racing, and I silently repeat certain mantras. Slow down – you don’t need to immediately respond.

Practice “verbal judo”

You might not be surprised to learn that George called me later that day to talk about what happened. George felt that, as a person of color, he was basically being told to “go along and behave” when I cut off the conversation. Whereas I was new to the mindfulness game at that point, I was familiar with the concept of verbal judo. I first read about verbal judo in Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by David Burns. Although this technique is often associated with persuasion, I actually see it as a precursor to negotiation.

Burns outlines three steps to verbal judo: 1) empathy, 2) disarming the critic, and 3) feedback and negotiation. In Step 1, I asked George to explain his point of view fully, and I didn’t interrupt. The key to this step is to allow the other person to feel fully heard, and this step takes as long as it takes.

Step 2 involves finding some way to agree with the other person. This point of agreement must be genuine. I replied to George, “It must have been frustrating to feel silenced.” (Note that I am not saying I meant to silence George, but empathized with how he felt in that moment.)

In Step 3, George was ready to hear my perspective as well. I was able to explain to George that my actual concern was a physical fight would break out in class. We then engaged in a conversation where we heard each other’s perspectives without defensiveness or judgment. Out of conflict came a greater understanding on both our parts.

Maintain appropriate boundaries

I can sit with worry with the best of them. I could take Paul and George home with me, in my mind anyway, and re-run different plays on how this all could have gone down better. I could question my life choices and think I should take a job selling shoes or do anything else besides teaching.

Even after conflict is processed, it’s hard to not take it home and chew it over in your mind along with your dinner. But, rehashing it over the hash doesn’t do anything to change the events. When conflict is seen as an inevitable part of the classroom life, it’s easier to put it down at night knowing I can always pick it up again tomorrow. Moreover, knowing that conflict is normal keeps me from taking it personally. Finally, seeing conflict as potentially beneficial prevents me from running away from it. So, an essential aspect of classroom balance for me is holding conflict carefully in my arms knowing that it can be a great teacher of lessons.

This post is part of the Write 6X6 challenge at Glendale Community College.

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♫ Community College Dreamin’ ♪

My husband and I found ourselves at In-N-Out Burger last Saturday just before midnight. (We’re old-ish but we occasionally have late nights. Leave it alone.) In all the fun with friends that evening we forgot to eat. And that’s how we found ourselves watching the choreography of the burger-joint food preppers as we waited for “Guest # 29” to be called.

Yep, 11:18pm!

What we saw were employees of all backgrounds united by a crisp uniform and the task at hand – feed hungry (and maybe hangry) late-nighters. What struck me is the buoyant banter and the bounce in their steps. It was like watching a well-timed ballet as they bobbed and weaved around one another. One particular food server had a booming laugh that broke us up every time it peeled out. At that moment, I yelled to my husband, “This is why I love teaching at the community college!”

His puzzled look prompted me to explain. I believe the work of these employees was fueled in part by the dreams they hold for their lives (while making the best French fries in the universe). These workers were young and full of energy and striving. And that is exactly the clientele I have the privilege of teaching every day. I get to spend a good chunk of my life around people who are in the very business of pursuing their dreams.

My late-night In-N-Out epiphany led me to ask the students in my statistics courses to share their dreams with me this week. (I told them I was a “dream catcher” – yuk, yuk!) Their responses did not disappoint, as seen in this sample:

“I want to be a journalist, to learn from the world around me, and share that information with others. I want to make life better for the people around me.”

“I want to help my kids become respectful/successful adults.”

“I dream of the possibility for humans to live in peace with respect for nature.”

“I want to be able to give back to my parents. That is my biggest dream.”

“A dream I have for myself is to become a registered nurse, working in a hospital saving and improving lives.”

“Dream #2: Win the lottery. Not the entire lottery, just enough to pay off all my student loan debt!”

As their professor, I have dreams for them, too. In my courses, I hope my students will engage in learning that sticks. I want them to get slayed (in a good way) by ideas and get hooked into the pursuit of knowledge. I want them to be stunned by new information and come to understandings that help improve their lives. Yes, I dare to dream!

So, the dreams of both teacher and student are inextricably intertwined. I want students to learn things of value, and they want to achieve their life goals. At this intersection is the motivational concept of instrumentality. For students to deeply engage in learning, it helps when they can see the relevance of what they are learning to their own goals.

To tap into their sense of instrumentality for what they are learning in statistics, I also asked my students this week, “How is this statistics course supportive of your dreams?” Teachers of statistics know that this question is not without risk. (To quote Jerry Seinfeld, “That’s a pretty big matzah ball
hanging out there.”) But, their responses were consistently positive. In truth, most students mentioned that this course will help them meet their major requirements, and we discussed how this type of extrinsic motivation is the way of things sometimes. However, some students mentioned more intrinsic value for learning statistics:

“This class helps me not believe every number I see.”

“It gives me the ability to think for myself and question information I am given.”

“It helps me to see the realistic numbers with life and how things are calculated in the real world. So it helps me to open my eyes to new things.”

“This course is helping me figure out how I learn best.”

“This course provides a way of spotting false research. It makes me not take everything at face value.”

“Taking this course supports my dreams by keeping my brain healthy and active!”

How can it not be anyone’s dream to teach at the community college? To be around people day in and day out who are on the cusp of making their dreams a reality. I attended a teaching conference today, and one of the presenters said, “Education is often done to students, not with them.” Having explicit discussions about the dreams and how their courses are useful to them is definitely an example of the latter.

This post is part of the Write 6X6 challenge at Glendale Community College.

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How Teaching Psych 101 Saved My Life (or at least made it a lot better!)

A popular book proclaimed that everything we need to know we learned in kindergarten. For me, everything I needed to grow into a healthy human I learned as a teacher of Introduction to Psychology. I don’t think I’m overselling it – teaching this course has changed the trajectory of my life.

The story is not a pretty one. Rather, mine was a story of do as I teach, not as I do. The prescription for physical and mental wellness is woven throughout any PSY 101 textbook, and I was doing my best to dole out the appropriate medicine to my students.

“Adequate sleep helps memory consolidation.”

“There is a link between exercise and a positive mood.”

“Stress can be regulated through mindfulness and meditation.”

Meanwhile, I myself was sleeping too little, sitting too much, and stress dominated most of my days. I regularly used food to regulate my mood. How I could warn my students about the “self-medication hypothesis” with a straight face remains a mystery to me.

But, with each new group of students, my awareness of my own hypocrisy grew. Just as I was beginning to muse about making some healthy changes, life hurried me along. Faced at the time with a more pressing need to find balance in my life, I turned to lessons ripped from the pages of PSY 101. I wanted to achieve greater peace in my life and get down to a healthy weight. I wanted more energy to face life’s challenges. I wanted strength when I was feeling broken.

As an educational psychologist, I know a little bit about how change happens. I know simplicity can be key when forming new habits, and I also know the power of mnemonic devices that help us to remember our goals. I therefore focused on just the following five directives from psychological research on how to live a healthy life (and they just so happen to rhyme!):

Soothe involves finding ways to regulate stress. Choose means opting, for the most part, to eat foods that make the body feel good and provide energy. Move involves finding some way to engage the body every day, even if it is just a walk around the block. Snooze means taking sleep hygiene seriously and getting in those zzz’s. Groove underpins all the previous elements and relates to setting up structures and habits that lead to healthy actions (like planning workouts for the week and stocking the fridge with veggies).

There is nothing sexy about this prescription. It also is no quick fix. There is nothing extreme involved, but rather balance is at the centerpoint. Each day I remember the words soothe, choose, move, snooze, and groove, and they help me to stay in balance.

So what did these five words do for me? Over a year later, I am perhaps healthier than I have ever been in my life. I have a much deeper sense of inner peace. I went from a BMI classified as “obese” to one smack-dab in the “normal” level. I feel energetic and strong. And, I no longer feel like a phony when sharing with my students how to be healthy and well.

This post is part of the Write 6X6 challenge at Glendale Community College.

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What Does It Mean to Be Trauma-Sensitive in Higher Ed?

I recently attended a professional development session on fostering resiliency in college students, and the presenter was definitely singing in my language. Concepts such as self-regulation and coping skills were dancing in my ears as a professor of psychology. As the session ended, however, a math professor in the group exclaimed, “I want to help, but I’m not a trained counselor!”

Her words zapped me out of my bubble, and yet I totally understood them. With rising levels of anxiety and depression among college students1, many professors want to help in any way possible. But most of us are not equipped to offer counsel, and those who are qualified understand that we cannot be therapists to our students. So what’s a college teacher to do?

For starters, we can look to our counterparts in K-12 education who are part of the Trauma-Sensitive Schooling movement. Teachers in this group understand that adverse childhood experiences often leave more than a physical mark. Indeed, post-traumatic stress disorder is seen in children who have experienced toxic stress stemming from physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, neglect in a variety of forms, and other household dysfunctions. And many of these students eventually enter our college classrooms.

Obviously K-12 teachers are no more counselors than those at the college level. However, from the Trauma-Sensitive Schooling movement emerged the idea of a set of universal teaching practices that promote inclusion for students who have experienced toxic stress. Since we can never know the inner lives of all our students, universal teaching practices are strategies used with the whole class in order to promote a sense of safety and well-being for all.

The good news is that universal teaching practices are not just one more thing to add to our lesson plans. They even don’t require specialized training. Rather, these practices are incorporated into our regular teaching routine. In this way, all college teachers regardless of subject area can help emotionally vulnerable students get the most out of their college courses.

Below is a sample of universal practices I use in my college instruction, (ripped from the pages of my previous work as a kindergarten teacher):

Predictability (limit unnecessary surprises)

For a student with ever-spiking cortisol levels, a certain level of predictability in a course can serve as a regulator. For example, one form of predictability is setting clear and consistent deadlines. In my classes, I have assignments due on the same day of the week, spread out over consistent intervals over the course. I include prompts in my lectures as the due dates draw near. I publish a course calendar that I advise students print out and “hang on their bathroom mirror.”

Another form of predictability is of the personal variety. I strive to be the same person today as I was yesterday (and will be tomorrow) for my students. I endeavor to model emotional stability for my students, some of whom come from more volatile home environments. Predictability can take many other forms in the classroom, wherever a supportive structure can be provided for students.

Acceptance (foster inclusion)

A feeling of belongingness can serve as a stress buffer in the classroom. Universal principles I use to welcome students involve getting to know their names and using them often, learning about them personally, and slowing down enough to listen to them when they have a question or want to share something. I stop whatever it is I might be doing and face them when they are speaking. When I cross a student in the hallway, I am conscious of my body language. Am I communicating receptiveness?

Another way to communicate acceptance can be found in the feedback process. The manner in which we respond to students in class discussions can communicate a sense of safety and ability to take risks. For me, this involves finding a kernel of correctness in all student contributions. For example, if a student starts talking about “Pavlov’s mice,” I can respond, “Yes! You are correct that Pavlov studied classical conditioning. It was with dogs as opposed to mice, but you’re on the right track.”

Co-regulation (share the calm)

When I sense a student is anxious in class, I model emotional regulation. In this way, I am inviting students to co-regulate with me. Co-regulation involves deepening my breath, slowing my speech, and perhaps lowering my vocal tone. It also involves avoiding co-regulating in the opposite direction; I strive to be mindful if my own anxiety level starts to raise in response to that of my student. Calming my own mind, therefore, is a critical first step.

Beyond bringing things down a notch, we can model a growth mindset with students. When an anxious student exclaims that they are just not a good reader, for example, we can share some strategies in this area. We can embrace failure as part of the learning process by sharing our own stories of when we fell and got back up.

Providing predictability, acceptance, and a sense of calm are not “add-ons” to our our already-packed curricula. To a certain degree, they are an extension of the person who is the teacher. More importantly, they are not direct clinical interventions. Rather, they are small steps we can take as college instructors to ensure the inclusion of all students in a safe, and thus productive, learning environment.

For more information on the Arizona Adverse Childhood Experiences Consortium and its Creating Trauma Sensitive AZ Schools Committee, visit https://azaces.org/

1Center for Collegiate Mental Health. (2018, January). 2017 Annual Report (Publication No. STA 18-166).

This post is part of the Write 6X6 challenge at Glendale Community College.

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Teaching Inspiration En Pointe

As I push my grocery cart through Safeway, a song from The Killers pipes through the speakers:

Are we human
Or are we dancer?

As a former dancer, I am forever intrigued by those lyrics. Why can’t we be both? This song brings me back to the early 80’s when I was a dance major in college. Picture leg warmers . . . an off-the-shoulder sweatshirt . . . a super-high ponytail on just one side. The movie Flashdance came out during my sophomore year. Yeah, I was a “manic, maniac!

After just two years of twirling in academia, though, I changed my major to education and went on to teach kindergarten through college for the next 34 years. Yet, who I am as a teacher now is greatly shaped by my college dance professors who embraced both their art and their students. From them, I learned the importance of consistency, enthusiasm, and genuineness in teaching – qualities I didn’t learn in any formal education course.

First, there was Sybil. She may have had a last name, but she was simply Sybil to us. She piled her white-blonde hair in a bun and her flowy scarves trailed behind her. Most humans walk to get from one place to another, but Sybil glided. Her interactions with her students also had that same smooth quality.

My personal tendency is not-so-much to glide as to sprint through the day. But, when I think of Sybil I slow myself down. My students have stresses of their own; there is no need for me to compound what they are going through. In fact, I now recognize what Sybil was doing was co-regulating with her students. In slowing her speech and deepening her breaths, she encouraged students to do the same without uttering a directive.

Sybil was consistent, which provided stability for all of us. She once advised us to “check your troubles at the stage door.” In other words, have boundaries between the emotional drama-du-jour and the work of being a dancer. In my teaching, I release my problems at the classroom door à la Sybil. I have a much better day as a result, and I can always pick up my worries again after class if I want. More importantly, my students have a steady force in me, too.

Then, there was Donna. Donna didn’t glide, she bounced. My visions of her involve her leaping, twirling, and smiling all the while. She was tiny with sassy-short hair, but it seemed like she could stop an oncoming train if needed. Her passion and strength were and are inspirational to me. I remember what it felt like to be on the other side of that enthusiasm, and it is something I strive to bring to my class every day (even when teaching my stats students about “failing to reject the null hypothesis”).

Finally, there was Patty. Patty defied the pressures to be uncomfortably thin as a dancer. Rather, you had the sense that she could really enjoy some good barbecue. But no matter, she could launch herself through space like no other. And she used her body to not only fly but to ground herself deeply to the earth. Patty loved dance, and she wasn’t about to let anyone tell her she wasn’t doing it right simply because of her size.  She was confident and true to herself, and this is something I strive to bring to my teaching.

To be sure, not all my dance teachers were inspirations. The professor who told me to lose weight when I was already thin. The TA who literally threw a book at me when I forgot to bring mine to class. The ballet teacher who ruled cruelly . . .

In all, I learned from my dance professors that the person who is the teacher is just as important as any teaching technique. Author Parker Palmer wrote, “We teach who we are.” Sybil, Donna, and Patty were the most human of dancers, and it is that humanity I want to bring to my teaching each and every day.

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