February 25, 2021

Spotlight Interview: Karen Van Kummer

Interview by Liz Bayardo Cardenas a PFF Fellow and doctoral student in CGU’s School of Community and Global Health.

Karen Van Kummer discovered her passion for teaching in 2013 when she began teaching at UCLA Extension. Her courses included The Fundamentals of Project Management and Leadership & the Human Element in Project Management. In 2017, she helped to create the project management certificate program for Cal State University, Los Angeles’ Professional and Global Education (PaGE) program for the San Gabriel and downtown Los Angeles campuses. As an IT business consultant, her facilitative approach during IT client engagements is mirrored in the classroom. Karen is a Ph.D. student at CGU in the Center for Information Systems and Technology program. She obtained her Preparing for Future Faculty (PFF) Teaching Certificate in 2020. Visit her website at Karen Van Kummer | Karen Van Kummer Consulting.

“… if I won the lotto, I would teach for a living. …teaching keeps me grounded, and my students inspire me.”

How were your expectations different from the reality of teaching? 

When I was hired at UCLA extension to teach project management, I met a distinguished program instructor who allowed me to sit in on some of her classes. Through these early experiences, I soon realized teaching was a lot more fun than I expected. For the past seven years, I continue to be good friends with this instructor, and we share a lot in common, including our birthdays that are only a few days apart.

I also realized my job was not prescriptive at all. Although the school provided me with a structured syllabus and guidelines for the university, they also gave me a lot of autonomy to build my course. I was able to build the course using industry textbooks and my work experience. I felt like a conductor in an orchestra – bringing together different elements to make something meaningful and helpful to listen to.

What have you learned about teaching from your students? 

I have a unique group of adult learners who come to class highly motivated and want to be there. Even if they may have worked or been in school all day, they arrive eager to learn specific skills. By listening and asking questions, I can bring out some of my students’ experiences and apply their experiences to involve them in the class content. I have also learned that students appreciate hearing from guest speakers and different other mediums.

I have also learned that I have different types of students – some of them are introverted, others are extroverted, but I tell all my students (and they appreciate it) that everyone wants to be seen, heard in their way. Some may not want to speak out publicly, so I use specific tools such as survey monkey, poll everywhere, or staying after class for 1s on 1s. I tell my students, “nobody wants to wear invisible cologne – everyone wants to be seen and heard.” I enjoy building safe environments because it is the best way to learn, make a human connection, collaborate, and take risks.

What are some of your best techniques for inclusive and equitable learning? 

I introduced a concept called “brainwriting,” where you begin writing down your ideas and hand it to the next person who reads your idea and offers another solution to enhance it. It ends up being not only a great collaborative exercise but also a lot of fun.

Also, during exam preparation, I like to use “gamification” techniques. I have used Prezi to create a final review, in which students come up in pairs to fill in the blanks – sort of like a rapid response. It is a fun experience, and the room fills with energy – at the end of the game, I give students time to reflect and build on their answers.

No matter their background, they can be younger, older, international students, women – everyone wants to be included.  I taught a similar program to Leadership & the Human Element in Project Management in a summer intensive program offered to international students from China. All of the students in this program are from the technology field, with about half of them being women, most under 21, and coming to the United States for the first time – and who do they see, an African American woman. I took these international students through the same process where the connection is key, and I got the same results. That’s because it’s the design of the course where I draw from my students’ experiences and make them feel comfortable where they can be their authentic selves. It’s so interesting to get the same results with different nationalities – it goes to show we are all the same human beings.

Even though I am an African American woman, when I teach diversity, I’m probably not teaching it per se – I am just living it. I teach students about the diversity of thought as one of the most powerful tools you can use. I help them learn about their style and how-to assess different styles in the workplace. I tell them to find what they have in common to meet and connect with people at their level. I welcome the diversity of thought because that’s how we have innovation and breakthroughs, and we need that diversity and innovation to move to the next level.

What are some changes you would like to see in higher education? Or predictions for how you see higher education changing?

I think things need to be mixed up a bit. In the world of technology- we call it disruption. While we are going through a global pandemic, there is a little more disruption and opportunity to challenge the status quo. We need more diversity and inclusion when it comes to people’s personal background and work experience too. Students are hungry to learn more than what’s in the textbook or coming out of the professor’s mouths. Whenever I bring a guest speaker, you would think I took my students to Disneyland. Students love to hear different perspectives and experiences. If everyone is coming from a similar background and all look the same – it constrains us from reaching the next level. So, I think higher education is going to have to mix it up.

What are the three key pieces of advice for other teachers or your younger self? 

Listen more – Early in my career, I was a salesperson for IBM and learned that 90% of selling comes from listening – this the same for teaching. One may have formulated lectures and materials, but you still need to listen to both verbal and no verbal communication to understand what students need.

Keep an organized resource center – I have made it an intention to collect and organize various resources that my students can easily access depending on what they need.

Connection is key – It is very important to connect with students and offer that invitation for learning. I have witnessed that when students learn to be their authentic selves, their student outcomes tend to take off even more.

How has the PFF program impacted your teaching?

The most important thing PFF has done for me is it has made me focus more on my teaching. Although I built my course material years ago, PFF has brought it into fine focus. PFF combines the theory and the practice and emphasized student outcomes and how to achieve those. I needed that to build a combined practice and theory while keeping the student in mind.

It also helped me get organized because I take for granted what I know. PFF gives you a structured foundation that you can use, almost like a diving board. I realize now that I need to go back and look at my content as a reflective practice. I’m going to commit myself to look at it on an annual basis. I also learned that the whole peer-review process is so important, and it was through all the connections, collaboration, and feedback that I stayed motivated.

What do you love most about teaching? 

I always tell my students that if I won the lotto, I would teach for a living. I do it on the side because I feel it necessary to keep up with my professional experience. But teaching keeps me grounded, and my students inspire me. It is thrilling to help people achieve their goals, tap into their strengths, and give them the confidence to do it. As I teach leadership skills, I make sure my students understand the importance of being empathetic and treating everyone with respect.