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Friday, February 24, 2017

Need = Belonging

As college faculty move into the heart of the semester, many may be seeing signs of students struggling to make progress towards their academic goals.   Their struggles may be related to academic issues, but they may also have to do with challenges that include financial difficulties, health concerns, family commitments, and/or unreliable transportation.

When students encounter such challenges, they may begin believing they don't belong in the college environment.  Research shows that when students can understand that the struggles they face are a normal part of many students' experiences, that helps them realize that their own difficulties aren't a signal that they don't belong, but instead that those struggles are a sign that they do belong to this community, and that they are experiencing what many of their peers experience too.  Those struggles are a cue to ask for help.

Although we may not think of ourselves this way, when faculty notice struggling students and invite them to talk about those struggles, we play a vital role in communicating that message of belonging to our students.  Those conversations give permission for our students to be "seen" by us.  They also reinforce the vital message of belonging by creating a context where we can encourage and equip our students with information they need to connect with resources that can support them.  Those connections not only help the student continue making progress towards their academic goals; they also help the student internalize the belief that they do, indeed, belong here.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

What Can *I* Do?--Pellissippi's Partners for Student Potential Invitation and Update--Spring 2017

[Note:  The following email went to all Pellissippi faculty and staff today, but anyone from the greater Knoxville community who is interested (early childhood workers, K-12 educators, administrators, community partners, and TNAchieves mentors) is welcome to attend.]

When I began teaching at Pellissippi, it didn’t take long to fall in love with our students, and to appreciate the tremendous—and unique—strengths they have to offer.  I also became painfully aware, though, of my need to more fully understand the challenging circumstances my students often face while pursuing their college coursework.

Some of those difficulties stem from financial struggles encountered by so many.  During the Fall 2016 semester, for example, a significant portion of our 10,244 students experienced some degree of economic instability while working towards their academic goals. 
  • ​​35% of the PSCC student population—that’s 3,606 of our students—received the Pell Grant, which is need-based aid. 
  • The average family income for those 3,606 students was a mere $26,169.  In case you wondered, the 2016 Federal Poverty Guideline for a family of four is $24,300.
If I teach 120 students this semester, I can estimate that 42 of them are likely to be grappling with the many challenges that accompany economic instability while they are taking my course. 

Those aren’t numbers; they are faces of the individuals in my classrooms.  The numbers simply compel me to stay mindful of these realities as I work with these students each day, and to continue learning—both from research and from you, my colleagues—about how to best support them.

It’s for this reason that, beginning in June 2014, our administration approved the creation of Pellissippi’s Partners for Student Potential (PPSP)—a campus initiative offering professional development opportunities that deepen and broaden participants’ understanding of PSCC’s unique student population and ourselves.  PPSP events have included Bridges Out of Poverty workshops, the Cost of Poverty Experience—College Edition, a range of faculty and staff in-service sessions, focus groups, and semester-long reading groups at four of our site campuses. 

Response to PPSP events has been strong:  Since January 2016, not only have over 300 faculty, staff, students and community members participated in 15 events, but some have also chosen to serve on two newly developed PPSP Sub-Groups led by Moira Connelly and Angel Hughes.  These teams are exploring the feasibility of assisting our students in the areas of childcare and textbooks. 

Yet even as the college continues bolstering campus and community resources to support our students, one question keeps re-emerging:

**What can I do to support students—especially in my interactions with those I teach and serve?**

If you, like me, often ponder that question, I hope you’ll join the conversation by participating in the PPSP Reading Group meeting at Hardin Valley.   In these weekly meetings, we will will discuss a selection of readings by a various researchers that address this question in two ways:
  • by showing how adversity –and the harsh or unstable environments often resulting from such circumstances— can impact an individual’s physical, emotional, and mental development; and
  • by exploring measurable practices and approaches that we--PSCC faculty and staff--and others are already implementing and can continue developing as we work with our students.
The value of these discussions increases with the diverse experiences offered by our participants, which means everyone is welcome.  

If you are interested in learning more about the Reading Group, please attend one of the following informational sessions:
  • Wednesday, 1/25 from 7:30-8:20 a.m. in AL 227
  • Wednesday, 1/25 from 12:00-12:50 p.m. in AL 227
  • Wednesday, 1/25 from 4:10-5:00 p.m. in AL 227
  • Thursday, 1/26 from 3:30-4:20 p.m. in AL 225
Please use this link to indicate which session you plan to attend: Spirit Level 60 cm
As always, feel free to contact me with any questions, and thank you for considering this opportunity.  ​

I'll close by saying how deeply grateful I am to be in the company of such tremendous dedication to the good of our students.

P.S.  Reading Groups at site campuses are also forming.  Each of those groups will be choosing their own focus.  For the Magnolia Reading Group, please contact Moira Connelly ( and/or Richard Patton (; for the Strawberry Plains Reading Group, please contact Tracy Rees (  If there are individuals at Division Street and/or Blount County who would like to facilitate meetings at those locations, please let me know.  I will be happy to help in any way I can.


Anne Pharr
Associate Professor, English Department
College Success Program Coordinator
Student Success Coordinator
Partners for Student Potential Coordinator
Pellissippi State Community College
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Friday, September 30, 2016

Student Engagement: If "Engaging" Is a VERB, Who Performs the ACTION?

Much has been made of the need for educators to increase student engagement in our courses.  

While I agree with the responsibility teachers have in creating lesson plans and class activities that aren't inherently boring, I also wonder whether we undercut our students' willingness to connect with less-than-adrenaline-producing subject matter when we do gymnastics and smoke-and-light-shows for the purpose of getting and holding their attention.  When the teacher feels compelled to do more and more work at engaging students, the students may internalize the message that student engagement isn't really their job.

To me, that is getting the grammar of student engagement backwards:  if students are going to engage in any part of their lives (whether it's in the context of relationships with family or friends, on the job, or in an educational setting), they must be given plenty of opportunities to perform the action of that verb.  And those opportunities need to happen in a range of situations--sometimes when an experience is naturally interesting, but also (and even) when an experience isn't quite so fascinating.

Many students may wonder, though, exactly what student engagement means.  It is, after all, a rather vague notion.

As a way of answering that question, I have decided in recent years to include engagement as a part of my students' overall grade for the classes they take with me.  Adding the facet of engagement into the course grade creates an opportunity for me to help students understand what behaviors they can practice both in and out of class.

Here is a recent version of that information, which I distribute to students early in the semester:

The Quality of Engagement grade is determined by how consistently a student contributes to a class culture that is beneficial and supportive for all class members (students and faculty).  Such positive contributions are made by practicing the following behaviors:

  • attending the entirety of each class meeting
  • bringing and using required materials
  • listening attentively to others' observations and questions
  • contributing relevantly and substantively to discussions (asking questions, offering observations, responding to the questions and comments of other class participants)
  • taking notes when relevant
  • actively participating in individual and group activities
  • adhering to syllabus guidelines regarding cell phones, computer usage, etc.
  • maintaining conduct that is professional and conveys respect for all class members (self, peers, instructor)
In addition to offering what I hope is a clear definition of these behaviors, I also provide information about how those behaviors are assessed.

Each Student's Quality of Engagement grade is based on the following scale:

A = excellent: student demonstrates all engagement behaviors on a consistent basis.

B = solid: student demonstrates all engagement behaviors most of the time.

C = acceptable: student demonstrates all engagement behaviors sometimes.

D = needs improvement: student demonstrates all engagement behaviors only occasionally.

F = poor: student does not demonstrate engagement behaviors.

After communication information about the Quality of Engagement portion of my classes, I then assess each student 3 times (every five weeks) over the course a 15-week semester.  Doing so offers them the chance not only to improve their performance (because grades continue to be a huge motivator for many), but this practice also creates an opportunity for them to try behaviors with which they may not initially be comfortable--behaviors that (I believe) will serve them well in all of their relationships.

While it is difficult to quantify the impact that this teaching strategy makes on student engagement, I can say that it has created many opportunities for me to talk with students about how their actions contribute to the people with whom they interact every day. Just today I recorded the first round of Quality of Engagement grades, and I wrote a personal note to each student describing the helpful behaviors I am observing during class as well as offering specific suggestions for how they can make adjustments, should they choose to do so.  

Hopefully, addressing student engagement in this way not only cultivates my students' growth in emotional intelligence, but also nurtures each student's sense of self-efficacy and agency.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Letter to the student shopping online during today's class discussion

Dear Student--

As we discussed, your classroom actions today were not in compliance with my instructions.  At the beginning of class, I asked students to move to the center of the room and join in a class discussion about the day's reading assignment.   Each of your classmates participated; however, you chose to sit at your computer and were looking at a site that was unrelated to our discussion.  When I asked you to join the conversation, you did so briefly.  But a few minutes later, you returned to your computer, and although I'm not sure whether you were still looking at that site, I did see the same images on your monitor.
As the syllabus clearly states (see section I), and as you and I discussed before you left, your actions will result in your being counted absent from today's class.    My choice to allow you to remain despite your actions was my attempt at giving you the opportunity to be present for the day's activities (and so was not as punitive as what the syllabus describes).
When, at the conclusion of class, I approached you about your behavior, you responded that if I counted you as absent, you would fail out of college (or something to that effect).  While I am not sure of your attendance record for this class, I doubt you are in danger of failing due to attendance; however, the scores you've received on the assignments you've turned in as well as for the assignments you have not turned in are very likely putting you in danger of failing this class.  I am very concerned about your progress in the course, and it sounds like you are as well.
I am confident you are more than capable of doing the work required for this course, and I want to support you in working towards that end.  Because I do want to support you (and all of the students taking this course), I can not in good conscience allow students to remain in class when they choose to blatantly disregard instructions.  Such actions are obviously a distraction to the student who is doing them, but they are also a distraction to other students and to me.  And as the professor for this course, it is my responsibility to create and protect an environment that allows every class member (you, your classmates, and even me) to give our full attention to the work at hand for that day.  

I take that responsibility very seriously for many reasons, not the least of which is this:  The college classroom plays an important role in helping students have realistic expectations about the relationships they will want to have with future faculty members, classmates, and employers.  I don't want to do anything in my class that will create the false belief that future faculty members--not to mention employers or anyone else with whom students hope to have good relationships--will ignore such behaviors.  Instead, I want our class to be a place where everyone--each student as well as me--can practice the kinds of actions and communication that show honor and respect for every person.

So, as we discussed, this means that if there is another instance when you choose not to follow my instructions during class, I will ask you to leave class immediately, and you will be counted absent for that day as well.  Should that occur, you will be required to meet with my department dean before attending another class.  At that meeting, you will discuss your classroom behavior and whether it is consistent with what you hope to accomplish in the class.  All of that information is on the slip of paper I handed you during our conversation.  If I'm not mistaken, you wadded it up and threw it in the trash on your way out the door, so you may not have read it.   Please don't hesitate to let me know if you need another copy.
Thank you for taking time to talk with me today.  Although I know our conversation was uncomfortable for both of us, it is my hope that it will result in helping you accomplish your goals.  And know that I am happy to talk with you at any time about your progress in the course.

Professor Anne Pharr

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Partners for Student Potential--Spring Reading Groups

If you haven't seen this article, which highlights the amazing opportunities PSCC offers our students, I hope you'll take time to do so.  It reminds me of what an honor it is to serve at an institution that impacts students and our community in such significant ways!

What's also true, though, is that PSCC's student population has its own unique set of characteristics--including both challenges and strengths.  This reality makes our work simultaneously exciting and difficult.   It also compels me to continually deepen my understanding of our student population and actively explore new ways to strengthen my work with them.  

Regardless of your role at PSCC (faculty, staff, administration, or student), taking part in a Partners for Student Potential Reading Group is a great way to do just that, and I hope you'll consider participating in one of three options being offered this semester at various College locations.   

For those located at Division Street (or perhaps Magnolia), Moira Connelly has offered to facilitate a weekly group and is currently working to determine a time and location that is workable for those interested.  Please feel free to contact Moira directly ( to indicate your interest and availability.  

If you are located at Strawberry Plains, I'm delighted to announce that Tracy Sands has offered to facilitate a group at that location.  You can contact her directly ( to let her know you'd like to participate.

On the Hardin Valley campus, meetings will take place from 12:55-1:50 every Monday, beginning January 25.  If you're interested in this option, please contact me directly ( so that I can make sure we have adequate reading materials and space.

I realize these times may not work for everyone, so I hope you'll watch for the One-Hour PSP Workshops coming to all site campuses in a few weeks. 
I'll close by emphasizing that any member of the PSCC community (faculty, staff, administration, or student) is welcome to participate; having a range of participants only enriches the experience for all of us.  

Thanks for your consideration, and for your good work with our students. I look forward to seeing what is in store for our College this semester.  


Anne Pharr
Assistant Professor, English Department
Student Success Coordinator
College Success Program Coordinator
Pellissippi State Community College
MC 317


Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Sustainable Teaching and Bad Math

It’s the second-to-last week of the semester, which for many teachers—perhaps especially those in higher education—is the most intense stretch in the academic term.  Though I’ve been at this job for quite some time, the sheer exhaustion I feel during these weeks often takes me by surprise.  All it takes is one stroll down the hallway of my department and a few conversations with colleagues to recognize I’m not alone.  Most everyone around me feels buried under a mound of work, and the word “exhausted” is one I find myself using and hearing more often.

The tiredness that teachers (and others) experience during this time of the semester is more than just physical, as evidenced by handful of articles making recent appearances in sources including The Chronicle of Higher EducationInside Higher Ed, NPRand even Christianity Today.  Whether the authors acknowledge it directly or not, these pieces portray an all-too-common experience of teachers and faculty members: compassion fatigue.

I would imagine most educators—especially those who have taught for awhile—would at least admit to understanding the concept of compassion fatigue.  Some might even go so far as confessing they’ve experienced it from time to time—perhaps even to a significant and even detrimental degree.

It can be risky, though, to acknowledge having really struggled with this experience; truly competent professionals shouldn’t and wouldn’t have to cope with this sort of emotional and intellectual limitation, right?

Sure, a teacher’s inability to fend off compassion fatigue could be symptomatic of a deeper, more problematic emotional and intellectual frailty. 


But maybe not.

Perhaps compassion fatigue for teachers—especially those in public education—can be attributed, at least in part, to simple numbers.

Professor Smith serves on the English faculty at an open admission community college with a student enrollment of over 10,000.  In some semesters, her classes consist of well over 100 students for whom she wants to be an effective teacher, which means not only covering the required subject matter, but also doing so in a way that is kind, caring, and compassionate.  Not only does Professor Smith want to learn all her students’ names, but she also wants to know their stories and understand what types of classroom experiences they do and don’t enjoy.  She wants to answer each of their questions, help them with their papers, meet with them individually to discuss study strategies that will work best for them. 

Professor Smith wants to accomplish all of that in addition to preparing for and teaching her classes with excellence, serving on committees, attending department meetings, participating in campus events, and serving as an academic advisor during the school's registration period. 

Then there is the paper grading.  If Professor Smith has 100 students in a given semester, and each student writes 6 essays, this means she will have 600 essays to grade.  If it takes Professor Smith approximately 30 minutes per essay (which, in some cases is a conservative estimate), she will need to devote 1800 minutes, or 300 hours to grading alone over the course of a 15-week semester.  And yes, that means 20 hours of grading per week on top of her other duties mentioned previously.  What still remains are the other assignments, quizzes, and reports she will need to evaluate.

If we're going to take a holistic look at the expectations Professor Smith must fulfill, we can’t ignore the time, energy, and attention she must give to students facing problems outside of class that interfere with their ability to complete their coursework.  During a recent semester in a single class, Professor Smith encountered the following issues:

Students who often couldn’t afford the gas money to drive to campus and attend class.

Students who walked to and from campus each day—regardless of inclement weather—because they didn’t own a car or a bike.

Students about to be put out of their current living situation.

Students whose work schedules conflicted with their ability to complete major and minor assignments.

Students who not only worked part- or full-time jobs, but also had young children at home.

Students whose first language was not English.

Students with serious, absence-causing medical issues who also lacked the health insurance which would allow them to seek treatment.
These students were in addition to those who simply struggled to make it to class on time, or to engage with the subject matter.
The above-mentioned student issues actually occurred in just one class during one semester.  Professor Smith taught other classes as well, each with its own unique set of students who brought their own unique circumstances with them into the class.

Professor Smith genuinely cares about each student.  But—like many of her colleagues as the semester moves into its final weeks—she also feels more than a little overwhelmed.  One result may be that Professor Smith finds it increasingly difficult to continue responding to student struggles in the kind and thorough manner that she hopes to demonstrate towards each of her students.

Perhaps these experiences are the result of poor planning, a lack of resilience, or inconsistently maintained classroom expectations. 

Maybe, though, Professor Smith's brush with compassion fatigue is the unavoidable product of an educational system that needs to be re-examined in the ways this article suggests

Friday, May 8, 2015

Everyday Dilemma

The last paragraph of the last essay I read this term--from an exceptional student whose unexpected end-of-the-semester struggles prohibited her from submitting work that more accurately shows her real ability:  "It is clear that the author didn't address the prompt [in this essay], but she honest only wrote this paper so that her professor couldn't fail her in the class on the premise of not turning in the paper.  She obviously understands that her behavior near the end of the semester is unacceptable, but she has been tired and has the final of her English class to pass."  This student's amazing potential was--at least temporarily--eclipsed by the kinds of personal challenges that so many community college students face.   I find her response simultaneously heartbreaking and heartening . . . .