THEME 3: Other Avenues for Teaching Support/Mentoring
At the onset of this study there was a sense that mentoring would likely be captured as the traditional one-to-one mentoring relationship, in part because U of T includes formal guidelines in several divisions that focus primarily on such dyadic models. However, faculty described a number of other avenues where support, advice, coaching (described as mentoring), took place. New faculty felt that they gained support and became socialized into learning about, and incorporating, myriad effective teaching practices via these activities and initiatives. In order of most frequently cited: Teaching & Learning Centres, peer groups, and institution-wide or central mentoring opportunities (e.g., Open Doors on Teaching, New Faculty Orientation, broader networks).
The following section addresses each of these positive and enabling activities and sites of support.
Teaching & Learning Centres. Teaching and learning centres are viewed as ‘hubs of experts,’ whether for seeking guidance on dossiers, in-class observations or more general teaching-related topics offered through workshops. An Associate Professor, TS, shared that her department worked in partnership with one centre faculty developer to create a key resource for new faculty hires focused on ‘nuts and bolts’, that includes and addresses teaching-related frequently asked questions. This participant noted that the department felt that such a document could free up a new faculty member’s time for other teaching, research, and service-related matters.
Participants cited the value of the Teaching Centres across the three U of T campuses that enabled connections and mentorship to happen: “CTSI serves as the default or first response.” Several participants from both mentor and mentee perspectives explicitly directed or were directed to workshops, and specialized services offered via the three campuses’ teaching centres. An Assistant Professor recounted her surprise at the “virtually non-existent orientation” within her own department and “one person told me about CTSI and I booked everything in my calendar – every faculty event that was running” (Soc Sc, mentee).
One mentor reported that: “Many of our faculty have worked with [names faculty developer] on learning outcomes, mapping with them and the digital side with two other staff (at a teaching and learning centre) and the liaison librarian.” An Associate Professor, TS, who did not receive a formal mentor, relied heavily on attending various teaching workshops, his experience as a doctoral student in THE500(21) and “I didn’t hesitate to go to sources of support at two of three campus teaching centres” (Phys Sc).
Finally an Associate Professor, who also serves as a formal mentor and as an educator within a teaching and learning centre in a large science faculty, shared that many faculty are not provided mentoring in teaching and will rely heavily on workshops and extensive longitudinal programs offered at the teaching and learning centre (e.g., 40 hour intensive learning sessions and once/ month participation in an Educational Journal club). More specialized and intensive programs include a focus on educational scholarship and leadership. To further mentor or guide faculty facing teaching-related concerns/problems, the teaching and learning centre also offers online modules that include, for example, brainstorming some teaching strategies. All of these initiatives add more opportunities for faculty to enhance their teaching repertoires.
Peer group. Interviews included numerous references to the value and importance of peer group relations that participants shared within the broad concept of mentoring, guidance, and support for teaching matters. Included here were: 1) in-class observations; 2) team or collaborative teaching; 3) tenure and promotion support; and, 4) departmental initiatives.
1. In-class observations. Several faculty members shared occasions in which peers from within and outside their department had sought feedback on their in-class teaching. In one case three teaching-stream faculty (two of which participated in this study) met at the New Faculty Orientation and shared with each other their anxieties about their new academic positions and mutually sought ongoing support for their teaching-related questions and concerns. Two were from the same department and the third faculty member was from another department. They conducted peer observations with one another but lacked guidelines for this activity.(22)
Another department (Phys Sc) has a lengthy history of peer support for in-class observations that are further enhanced by including students in the formative assessment process. Participants in their paired interview reflected on the value of this activity and support for observing one another’s teaching to gain new insights regarding strategies, approaches, and educational technologies. A strong teaching culture in their department has opened the spaces to discuss and make public one’s teaching. In addition this particular department has a large contingent of teaching-stream faculty with extensive training in pedagogy, including SoTL research, described as key factors in supporting peer activities.
2. Team or collaborative teaching. Participants further identified peer support in relation to co-teaching and collaborations in the development of course syllabi. Opportunities existed to share teaching experiences, to discuss and problem-solve any course teaching issues immediately after they occurred. One Assistant Professor (Soc Sc) described colleagues who promptly responded to her ‘SOS’ email regarding a student matter – she received the advice and support she needed at a time that she most needed it, and was grateful for peers who stepped in when it really counted.
In a unique teaching arrangement a ‘teaching team’ includes faculty alongside sessional instructors and graduate students that allows for peer group teaching support to occur. The Associate Professor from this department described the teams in this way:
There’s lots of learning going on. Peer teaching in many ways. Teams are around an area or a particular course – and that’s where the teaching techniques, approaches, problem solving about teaching happen, a peer mentorship kind of thing. The course coordinator is in charge.
3. Tenure and promotion support. Participants also described the importance of peer support for tenure and promotion processes. A few participants sought out faculty who were experiencing a similar stage in the process. As one Assistant Professor, TS, commented: “I was working on my 3rd year review package and got support from another Lecturer, a good friend and colleague who was also going through the process, alongside me.” She also sought out a couple of Assistant Professors, TS, who had recently been successfully promoted, to provide advice in looking ahead to her own promotion to Associate Professor, TS. Similarly an Assistant Professor (Soc Sc) sought support from two pre-tenure colleagues at slightly different stages to share annual review experiences: “what fits, what to talk about, who could share their annual review forms to see the structure of those.” An Assistant Professor, TS, with no formal mentor, sought insights from an Assistant Professor, TS, colleague who had been hired just six months prior to him: “I discussed with him what’s working [teaching-wise], frustrations about the department, resources and support for our courses” (Phys Sc).
Briefly, two enabling factors emerged in participant interviews closely connected to peer mentoring and collaboration: first, the availability and provision of physical spaces to congregate informally to discuss teaching experiences. This theme is addressed more fully in the next section where positive faculty interactions can occur within inviting spaces, rooms, and lounge areas to engage in conversations that matter to their teaching. Second, peer mentoring opportunities can emerge first from faculty development sessions and can be the catalyst for other avenues of support:
Newer models – peer mentoring – are increasingly occurring or are more group based that allow faculty to think about their teaching and come to a workshop to do this. They can sit with someone else to discuss your course evaluations and can improve. They develop their own little community of practice or peer mentoring in some departments and it works well (Assoc Prof, Med, mentor).
4. Departmental initiatives. Departmental series/rounds or as one participant referred to as “mentoring at a larger scale”, were frequently described by teaching- stream faculty. These participants deemed such departmental opportunities useful for hearing and sharing about a range of teaching topics with other faculty (and instructors, graduate students). Of note is that a couple of these series/rounds impacted a large number of faculty and highlights both the importance of such events as avenues to mutually share, guide, assist, coach and mentor others of varied experience levels, but also the important leadership role many of the teaching stream faculty have taken on in supporting or initiating such
One Assistant Professor, TS, re-launched a discussion-based, twice monthly lunch hour meeting round with guest speakers, that included a focus on seminal teaching topics and peer reviewed articles identified by the instructors and graduate students who attended these sessions (Phys Sc, mentee). Further still, another Assistant Professor, TS, described a faculty retreat, that:
Opened opportunities to try new initiatives such as hosting a student engagement workshop and I spearheaded an Innovation Committee Lunch ‘n Learn to address topics such as educational technologies and to get instructors on board. We meet once per month but I’d like to start a peer- peer facilitated session (Life Sc, mentee).
Both an Associate Professor, TS, and an Assistant Professor, TS, organized a discussion- only lunch series on pedagogical topics. She reflected during our interview that this series can be viewed as “mentoring at a larger scale.” The first lunch included 15-20 attendees. This group decided to meet a few times to decide on pedagogical topics and arranged for informal lunch sessions, “to just talk about it [topics] so people don’t think they have to present something…for example we did one session on student mentoring and talked for two hours and it was fabulous.” This departmental initiative moved beyond the initial group when an outside speaker was invited to discuss writing activities. On this particular occasion 100 faculty attended and while the session topic was originally to be contained within the department, “there was so much interest it went bigger. It was a network and people followed up with each other.” A follow-up topic on inverted learning was similarly described as a success, as participants found a space to really listen and discuss teaching topics:
And they [faculty] gave a sigh when they came in one time for the topic of inverted classrooms with [names faculty member], just relaxed, got a sandwich and were part of a learning community. Created a culture here where pedagogy is something that there is room for. (Assoc Prof, TS, Soc Sc, TAM, mentor)
One Assistant Professor, TS, (Life Sc, mentee) sought to build a learning community within her department to offset the lack of formal mentoring she had received upon hiring. Her Chair suggested that she seek out teaching leadership opportunities by meeting with new hires including tenure stream hires, to answer teaching-related questions. This committed faculty member shared course materials even though the new hires may already have had a formal match within their division (FAS). The instructor received questions about peer assessment examples, writing assignments, how to avoid giving high marks (“a big concern about this, a culture about it”), and how to ask different questions to facilitate student discussion during lectures. In spearheading a monthly lunch series focused on teaching topics this instructor also sought and received $500 from the Department Chair to provide lunch for attendees. This series is intended for continuing appointment faculty, Course Instructors and interested graduate students. The Chair played an instrumental role in contributing to the series success and uptake by regularly communicating the event to all faculty, not just teaching stream. Such leadership was deemed to be important in building a departmental learning community.
Two other participants shared similar ‘Lunch ‘n Learn’ events that included a Book Club, Journal Club and opportunities to share amongst peers, whether from the continuing appointment stream or graduate students who were keen to hear about teaching topics. One case illustrated the pitfalls that well-intentioned Chairs may fall into – relegating teaching/pedagogical topics to a lower priority within the department. An Associate Professor, TS, described a Brown Bag lunch series held 3-4 times per year that had been launched prior to his appointment but was lacking pedagogically-focused topics. When the Chair invited him to speak at a faculty meeting on a specific teaching topic and suggested that he “be no longer than five minutes,” the faculty member offered to conduct a one hour Brown Bag session for all interested instructors on a pedagogical topic/initiative he had recently launched – and for which he had received broader support and recognition from outside his department. The Chair provided little encouragement, suggesting there may be too few interested faculty who would attend (Assoc Prof, TS, Phys Sc, mentor).
Several other participants mentioned other departmental mentoring activities that provide a space for frequent teaching topic discussions in their departments, viewed by participants as opportunities that may fall within a broader mentoring culture. In one case an Associate Professor, TS, described faculty discussions in this way:
Our [small] department meets every week and all departments should do it – as a result we share a lot of stuff – not really mentoring in that sense, but we share a lot about what’s going on in our teaching and our courses…we deal with admin stuff frequently which frees up time to discuss teaching and course-related topics. If you want to get assistance with field trips with a large course I know who to talk to about this, same with online learning, and faculty then don’t have to reinvent the wheel. (Phys Sc, UTM, mentor).
An Associate Professor, TS, shared details about an informal faculty group that meets 3-4 times per year, consisting of three continuing appointment faculty and one contract faculty. They worked to create a lounge space,
to think about community and a big room was cleaned out with seating and carpeting – a space to eat lunch, meet with students and book the space. There is no formal agenda, just whatever was going on in our course – big and small picture discussions (Humanities, UTM, mentor).
This faculty member recently spearheaded a related initiative to launch peer observations of teaching within both teaching and tenure streams, asking faculty, “would you be interested in seeing someone else’s class and vice versa?” The interest in this particular department is growing for such informal, peer-supported, formative-focused teaching activities. Finally, another department shared that they collaborate across the three U of T campuses to host an annual “Teaching Day” in August.
Institution-wide or central mentoring opportunities. The academic literature includes ways in which larger peer networks and communities of faculty instructors work to advance mentoring activities. The following section highlights participants’ discussions regarding U of T (institutional) and centrally administered mentoring activities: Open Doors on Teaching, the New Faculty Orientation, and a more organically-driven community of practice that focuses on online learning.
1. ‘Open Doors on Teaching’. Open Doors on Teaching is a unique mentorship program for U of T faculty. Organized through CTSI, and facilitated by members of the University of Toronto’s Teaching Academy (faculty who have received U of T’s highest teaching honor, the President’s Teaching Award), Open Doors provides faculty of all career stages with the opportunity to learn from the experience and expertise of their colleagues.
Both mentors and mentees in Open Doors shared their positive experiences and overall felt strongly that it should be bolstered and communicated throughout the U of T community because of its positive impact on mentee’s ongoing efforts and commitment to enhance their teaching. Participants described their relationship as the more traditional mentor-mentee dyad but also spoke of the reciprocity in learning, as noted previously in this report within the literature on peer-supported relationships. Teaching Academy Member (TAM) mentors felt that they too benefitted from observing and discussing teaching and keeping in touch with new strategies and approaches: “For me it’s two-way – I observe others to learn, especially from people away from my department and discipline and ask, ‘why do you do it that way? I’d never have thought of that way’” (Assoc Prof, TS, Phys Sc, mentor, TAM).
2. New Faculty Orientation (NFO). As noted previously, several participants described the full-day NFO as an opportunity to launch new peer groups and academic support systems. Specific to the event itself, one Associate Professor, TS (Soc Sc, mentor, TAM) described the institutional NFO as a broad initiative to mentor new faculty based on what teaching-related questions they bring to the lunch to discuss with an invited Teaching Academy member. Her experience at the lunch has been to hear questions from new faculty regarding large class sizes, tenure and promotion guidelines, and specifically what to include in their dossier content. Some of her key advice focuses on advising faculty to enhance their teaching and related practices by selecting something that they want to focus on that is a current strength (e.g., community or service learning) and one weakness to focus on and improve and seek ways to learn in this area (e.g., new media). This particular mentor keeps abreast of new faculty hot topics, concerns and anxieties to, in turn, incorporate them back into their own mentoring relations.
3. Broader networks. Teaching and learning networks serve as an invaluable avenue to share teaching concerns, and strategies to address these needs. In a more notable case an Associate Professor, TS, shared his leadership in creating an online community of practice (CoP):
That [CoP] has been a catalyst to get to know people. A lot of conversations happening. This type of network means you can have more than one mentor – but it’s not for everyone and it’s really hit and miss… the strength at U of T is the size and the ability to network (Phys Sc, mentor).
Two mentors shared their perspective on what mentoring networks can add to a new faculty’s academic experience. One participant (Associate Prof, Med) noted:
The lingo I like is developmental network – a collection of individuals who help you in developing certain aspects, for example, teaching, or meeting an admin person on time management or you probably meet a range of people – some stay and some are added depending on what you need.
(21) THE 500H – Teaching in Higher Education has been offered since 1994. The objective of THE500 (Teaching in Higher Education) is to support Ph.D. students and Post-Doctoral Fellows from all divisions at U of T in their professional preparation for academic careers. Retrieved from http://www.wdw.utoronto.ca/index.php/programs/the500/overview
(22) Following the interview, participants requested CTSI in-class observation checklists to ensure they used some guidelines during their peer observations.