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Make Difference for Students

Academic Educator vs. Subject Matter Expert

From my experience, I have discovered there are two distinct perspectives of the work that educators perform. One perspective is a result of the traditional role of an educator, who is working full time at a college or university and has dedicated their career to the development of their instructional practice. They are working to become a teaching expert and usually have strong subject matter expertise, along with a highly developed academic background. This type of educator has dedicated their career to helping students learn, conducting research, publishing, and furthering their scholarly expertise.

The other perspective of an instructional practice is based upon those educators who are working as adjuncts. Online teaching was a thriving career up until a few years ago, when the for-profit industry came under intense scrutiny. Approximately ten years ago, there were more jobs than adjuncts and now that trend has reversed. The primary difference between adjuncts in this field and traditional instructors is that online adjuncts are often hired not because they were academics, rather they are practitioners in a field related to the subject being taught. When someone teaches a class without an academic background, their primary focus is often on the need to manage a class and complete the facilitation requirements.

What does this mean for the classroom learning experience? Is one type of educator more effective than the other? I believe that it is a matter of perspective. An academic educator is going to better understand the learning process and how to educate adults. A subject matter expert, as an instructor, may be able to provide the necessary context for learning and that means either educator can be effective. I chose to bridge the two types of educators by choosing postsecondary and adult education as the major for my doctoral degree, to add to the business and business management subject matter expertise I already had acquired. However, that only tells part of reason why my work with students has made a difference for them as knowing how adults learn is part of the equation but not the complete answer.

How You Can Make a Difference for Your Students

Regardless of which type of background you have as an educator, I have discovered that what makes a difference for students is the attitude and disposition an instructor holds about learning, along with their ability to see a potential for growth in every student – and how they are able to relate to and work with their students. Below are three areas for self-assessment that you can use to determine if you have had, or could have now, a positive impact on the learning and development of your students.

#1. Do you do what you say you will do? What you say to your students matters, along with what you say you will do and then what you actually do. For example, do you state that you are easily accessible and responsive to their needs, but then you are slow to answer questions or unwilling to provide assistance that actually helps them? When you state that you care about their academic needs, how do you show it?

Students may forget what you state or what you have written, but they will usually remember what you have done. As an example, if a student has asked a question and received a timely response, especially one that is meaningful and demonstrates a caring tone, they will remember that and likely seek assistance again when needed. It goes back to the saying that “actions speak louder than words” – and I’m certain this is something you have experienced yourself.

#2. Do you want to make a short term or long term impact? Have you ever taken time to consider the impact of your teaching practice? If so, what kind of impact do you want to have on your student’s academic life? When your goal as an instructor is to complete the required facilitation duties and assist students only when they request help, the impact that you will have on their learning experience will likely be short-term and soon forgotten. In contrast, if you are cultivating relationships with your students and you are focused on their academic success and ongoing persistence, your impact is likely to be more long-term or memorable.

You may not know the full extent of how you have helped your students if you work with them for only one class; however, the long-term effect is one that will be transformative as they continue working towards completion of their academic goals. You may also never know about the impact you have made if your students are not directly responding to you. But the smallest of gestures made by you, done with a genuine concern for the well-being of your students, may influence them in a positive manner both now and in the future.