From my small town beginning to current big city experience, I have learned to embrace cultural and gender diversity, as well as, consider the (in)compatibility of individual personalities and teaching strategies and its influence on academic performance.
Small town to big city: As a small-town girl from upstate New York, I was most comfortable in a small university setting where professors knew me by name. Yet, as I have pursued higher educational degrees I have attended larger and larger institutions. The bachelor degree experiences of my large University students are drastically different than my own, yet many of my students come from rural Tennessee towns. Unfortunately for those students the experience can be overwhelming and some feel lost in the crowd, but not my students. Even in my 250 student classes, I strive to create a learning experience where students feel valued by their peers and by me. Even in a large class, I can simulate a small university atmosphere by facilitating small group discussions and activities, meandering around the classroom rather than standing behind a podium, and most importantly – I learn their names! Even a quick and sincere comment to a student who was absent last class, acknowledging that you would have enjoyed his/her take on the subject discussed, goes a long way in making a student feel welcomed, involved, and appreciated in the learning process.
Women in science: As a woman in a STEM discipline, I’ve had to overcome societal stereotypes, but thanks to several remarkable mentors, I have not been discouraged and continue to pursue my passion. I strive to be such a mentor to not only my female students, but also my male students because societal change will require a change in the mindset of both men and women, where men support women in science and women support each other. I share existing gender issues within the science field with my students and encourage them to take an Implicit Association Test to promote awareness of conscious (and unconscious) individual gender biases and strive to dispel such attitudes over the course of the semester. Additionally, I have personally mentored one male and four female students in biology research (all four women have gone on to pursue degrees in STEM).
Overcoming performance diversity: Some of the existing diversity in academic performance among students is a result of the variable quality of their previous primary and secondary schools. However, a portion of the diversity may be the result of individual personalities and the incompatibility of certain learning environments with certain personalities. Although classroom groups are sometimes student selected, as I get to know my students I discretely assign groups based on student personalities. A shy, introverted student if grouped with an outgoing, outspoken student, may be intimidated, so I initially group the relatively shy students together to build confidence and create an environment where one or more shy students can step into a leadership role, many for the first time. Over the course of the semester, the shy students gain confidence and hold their own in groups containing outspoken individuals or even speak out in front of the whole class, while the outspoken students learn to listen, as well as, speak.
Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to implement teaching strategies that recognize and appreciate cultural and gender diversity, as well as, strategies to help diminish the academic performance diversity present in a classroom, by creating an inclusive environment that builds confidence and allows students to exceed even their own expectations.