Our schools are not factories, they are places where students learn. Our students are not products, they are human beings with great potential.
As an educator, my principal objective when I enter a classroom is to foster “social capital,” a concept that has been studied at length by political scientist Robert Putnam. Social capital is an essential component of a productive, thriving community where people engage each another in a wide variety of ways. Schools play an important role here because they are sites where people not only develop their knowledge, but also construct meaningful, lasting bonds, thereby leading to higher levels of trust, cooperation and reciprocity in the broader society. To facilitate the construction of social capital as a teacher, I believe in the following: effectively communicating with my students to ensure I meet their needs; challenging them to explore course content through a student-centered approach; and encouraging the connection of theory and practice.
Effective communication between the instructor and student is necessary for both to be successful in their respective endeavors. I have a professional obligation to ensure my expectations and directions are clear and concise – from the course syllabus and weekly assignments to class activities and unit exams. Furthermore, I need to be conscious of time when assessing student work and include feedback beyond mere letter grades. This is important so people can learn not only how to improve, but also what they have done correctly. If someone’s performance is low or has declined, privately speaking with that individual is necessary to determine why he or she has is having difficulty. Lastly, accessibility is vital because of the incredible cross section of students that often attend community colleges. In my experience of having both attended and taught in this environment, I know that an instructor must be sensitive to the different life experiences of others.
Many of the issues discussed in a political science course are contentious because most people have an ideological leaning. Answering political questions such as “Does the Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution guarantee a right to privacy?” and “Should government intervene in a capitalist economy?” are rather challenging for even the most informed citizen. Here it is imperative that I utilize a student-centered approach that encourages them to explore how many issues are more complex than some might initially believe. By assigning thought-provoking articles to read, prompting students with questions, and relating the issues to everyday life we may discover ideas that cause us to reevaluate our own positions.
Finally, I believe in connecting thought and action whenever possible. People need to recognize the opportunities they have to engage political actors and institutions because this is how they can advance issues that matter to them. In a democratic republic such as ours we should celebrate our right to vote in elections, publish our ideas on a weblog, speak at city council meetings, run for office, write letters to officials and the local newspaper, and even protest if such an approach is warranted. The discipline of political science is unique when compared to others, in that, it can teach us not only about the operation of governing institutions, but also the means by which everyday citizens may engage in the process. For example, I have asked my Federal Government students to write an informed letter regarding an issue they care about to either their member of Congress or the local newspaper. When I teach Texas Government, I ask them to interview a local public official or a full time employee of a non-profit organization involved in issue advocacy. They have the latitude to choose according to their interests.
The classroom can be a transformative place when students have an instructor who challenges them to excel and develop their intellectual potential. Moreover, some of what an instructor teaches his or her students should also have applications beyond the walls of the school itself. I believe that nurturing human relationships is a core element to not only educational, but also lifelong, success. As Robert Putnam has found in his research, a higher level of social capital is an important component of communities where people care about one another, and where they care about the system of government under which they live. My objective as a college instructor is to build social capital through openly communicating with my students, stimulating thought about complex issues that have far reaching implications using a student-centered approach, and encouraging participation in the democratic process that we hold dear.