Reasons I like teaching at a community college

A friend here in East Lansing is applying for a position at the same community college at which I teach Physics, and she asked me what I liked about my job in order to help her fill out her own application. I decided I should reveal some of those thoughts to a wider audience, first for people who know me personally and am wondering how I like my new job, and second for other people who stumble upon this post who are thinking about either teaching at, or attending, a community college. (Besides, the most regularly visited post on this blog so far has been that one I wrote about the United Way, and that just makes me feel bad!) My experience may not be typical, of course, but it is all I know.

1. I like that I know my students. I believe all of the Physics classes we teach, astronomy excepted, are integrated lab-lecture courses. They therefore take place in lab-oriented classrooms that only have room for about 25 students, and thus no section is larger than 25 students. So I know everyone’s name, and could probably tell you a thing or two about most of them that has absolutely nothing to do with Physics. And that’s a nice thing.

On that subject – some of my students have mentioned taking Physics before, especially at Michigan State, and sitting in a lecture hall filled with 200 other students. I don’t think I’d want to be a professor or a student in that situation! For that matter – why even bother with that setup in the 21st century? If there isn’t going to be any student-teacher interaction anyways, why not just videotape a lecture and let people watch it at their leisure? You could avoid any random slips of the tongue or improper board-work that way too!

2. I like that my students come from a diversity of “academic” backgrounds. Now granted, the last class I taught was 80% premed students, so maybe that biased me a bit. But especially in my Applied Physics course I seem to have students from several different technical programs, and they sometimes offer pertinent examples in class that would never occur to me. (They also sometimes have to explain them to me… well, that’s OK. I don’t have a car, people!)

3. I like that I have good students. I feel kind of obligated to say that since community colleges, it’s true, generally have lower admission requirements and therefore some academically weaker students. Well, maybe I’ve just been lucky, or maybe Physics scares the weaker students away (that’s a definite possibility!), but I seem to have, by and large, committed students who really want to learn. And that goes double for some of the “older” (you know, like 30 years old) students I have. A lot of people attend college because they frankly don’t know what else to do with their lives – you might do that at 18, but not at 30. At 30 you’re here with some goal, and you’ll do what it takes to accomplish it.

4. Speaking of older students, here is an odd one for you, but it’s a personal pleasure to get to serve people with what you might unkindly call “real problems”. Sometimes students can’t come to class because their child has unexpectedly become sick, or because they were called into work and can’t get off. I’m glad for the opportunity to go “out of my way” by some minuscule amount to help them catch up with what they’ve missed. If your typical college student misses class – well, often the reasons are not quite so noble, and instead of feeling sympathy for them I might feel… something more, er, wrathful.

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