March 29, 2021

Spotlight Interview: Brittany Hite

Interview by: Noah Ringler, PFF Fellow and Doctoral Candidate in Positive Developmental Psychology

Brittany Hite is PhD Student in Positive Developmental Psychology with a concentration in Evaluation

“I love hearing students’ dreams and interests and using information I’ve gained along the way to help them get one step closer to those things.”

How were your expectations different from the reality of teaching?

I feel like I underestimated the amount of time outside of the classroom that you devote to teaching and more specifically, the amount of time that it takes to actually think through a good lesson.

Going into it, I really just thought teaching was about sharing resources and content, but as I started to develop my class, I realized there’s so much more you have to account for if you want your students to actually learn. It was like the difference between sharing content vs. the content actually landing and finding its way into your students’ brains and lives. It’s those extra things you have to think about that’s like ‘what’s going to make my students really connect with this?’, ‘how can I bring in previous information to reinforce those previous concepts so that they’re not lost to the ether forever??’, ‘how can I structure my class so that students want to come and can easily pay attention the whole time?’, ‘what examples will really help bring home this point?’, ‘how can I use class time to check in with each students’ understanding and help fill in those remaining gaps?’ and even like ‘what is the simplest way of explaining this insanely complex concept?’. I just did not realize that if you let it, one class could take up literally all of your time.

Also, this one is smaller, but I have had multiple jobs where I have had to do client presentations, client workshops, and I’ve even taught a few class sessions as a TA at CGU before. The one thing I felt most confident about was my ability to get in front of the students and not be nervous, so I was definitely confused when I would constantly have like a feeling in the pit of my stomach before I had to get up in front of the students. I also usually adjust fairly quickly, so even when it happened, I figured it would go away in a few weeks, but it lasted probably three months of my time teaching!

What have you learned about teaching from your students? 

I went into teaching thinking if I provided students opportunities to receive help, they would come take advantage of it whenever they needed to. Initially, that wasn’t the case. In fact, the students that needed the help rarely came to get it, while those who didn’t necessarily need it were more likely to show up during office hours, before class, after class etc. Even when I was walking around class during activity periods asking people if I could answer any questions, I came to realize the students who were lost were also not asking questions but the students who were getting the material would feel fine asking clarifying questions.

I think the first lesson I learned there was that creating space for students to ask if they’d like to was not enough, but instead if I really wanted to help students, I’d have to be the one reaching out to them to see if I could set up some time outside of class to run back over the homework with them and talk through the places they still seemed to be struggling.

The second lesson is tied to that first one, but this one came directly from my students. Basically, students were so used to things being done a certain way, that when I did little things (like learning all of their names, bringing cookies to class on exam day), they were blown away. My students would tell me that in previous courses they had taken the professor had like a sink or swim mentality where they would just blow through the material and they wouldn’t stop to make sure it made sense or that students understood it. The pressure was basically on students and the mentality of professors seemed to be ‘you’re going to keep up and make it or you’re going to fail’. So, I never thought I was doing anything exceptional or groundbreaking in how I approached teaching, but my students helped me understand what the norm really is and that if you want to create a space that’s different from that norm, you’ll have to actively work against the expectations your students are coming in with.

What is your wish project? What type of assignment would you like to do, if you didn’t have to worry about grading, resources, time, etc. 

I think the thing that makes statistics the most interesting is the fact that when you learn it, you now have the tools to find the answer to any question you are interested in. I’ve always gotten so excited because statistics is like the last step – the big reveal! And if you were able to have students drive their projects based on their own interests, then they’d be able to have that big reveal for a question they’re really. interested in answering. Plus, then they’d have a better sense of how statistics plays into the research process as a whole (aka how they would actually be using it in the real world). I’ve seen students do amazing in a statistics class and then get onto an actual research project and be completely lost about how to use what they learned in this new context.

So, in my mind, it would be so beneficial for students to be able to actually go through the whole process themselves in the class: pick their own question, collect the data, run the analyses, and write it all up. But it’s difficult to do all of that in one class with the time allotment and prerequisite that would be necessary. I’ve tried doing similar activities at a simpler level with pre-collected data and tried to explain how each step might differ from a more common research process, but students were still slightly lost without enough previous knowledge on the process to guide them.

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

There are so many.

First thing that comes to mind is the cost of education since it’s such a barrier for so many students and it definitely ends up snowballing societal inequalities.

I also feel like higher education does students a disservice when it asks professors to be both researchers and teachers. Especially when the system is set up in a way where most of the benefits and rewards are tied more to the research and almost not at all to the teaching (I know there are certain colleges like teaching colleges where this is not the case but generally speaking). I think this hurts teachers’ abilities to devote time and effort to becoming better educators and giving their students the time they deserve.

Also, I would love to see students receive better pay for their work. Whether it’s an internship, an on-campus job, work in a lab, etc., students are often asked to work for free or for rates that are not comparable to the jobs they are doing and the experience they have. This gets especially tricky when those low to no pay jobs are the ones that can help students get ahead in their chosen field, but students who have to financially support themselves because their families do not have the means can’t afford to take on those opportunities.

I would also love to see more field work, real world application of material, and/or partnerships with communities around the college so that students can understand what these abstract concepts and disjointed skills might look like in the real world – and ideally, along the way, they could support their surrounding communities too.
I also would love to see collaboration across fields a lot more. I wish there were classes taught by multiple professors that take on a single issue and look at it from across their different fields. Social issues are broken up into these different aspects and the economic aspect of it is studied by economists and the individual psyche aspect of it is studied by psychologists and the historical aspect of it is studied by historians, etc. etc. I feel like students would be so much better trained to tackle the issues of today if they were trained to combine these fields to think of an integrated solution.

Lastly, I think students don’t understand the multitude of jobs they can go into from any one field even with advisor support, a career class, and a career center. Usually, those individuals don’t know much past their own experience, so the less common jobs never make it to students’ radar, and I feel like students may be missing opportunities to connect with professions that could be a better fit for them.

Three key pieces of advice for other teachers/their younger self

a. I think it’s really important to focus more on feedback and less on points. At least in my experience, by taking off fewer points and providing more feedback, students focus more on the learning process and less on the point totals. In general, I’ve just found grades to be somewhat detrimental to the learning process so try to find a way to make your class more feedback focused.

b. Don’t be afraid to be fun or goofy. Ultimately, your students are human beings so don’t get caught up in teaching how you think “professionals” should teach. One of my favorite professors as CGU taught a class that I still think about because it felt like a comedy show every time I went to class and, ultimately, this really helped me care about the class and see that it could be fun and interesting.

c. And finally, I would definitely err on the side of kindness. Going into teaching, I was actually pretty nervous about this because I thought I’d get taken advantage of or students wouldn’t respect me if I came across as ‘too soft’. But during my experience teaching, every time I worked with students and heard what they were going through, I was surprised to see how grateful they were to receive a little bit of understanding from a professor. I would rather have some students who will take advantage of that and help out the students that actually need it rather than be another example of an overly harsh professor that negatively shapes their view of education.

What do you love most about teaching? 

There’s this phrase, and I don’t remember where it comes from, “lift as you rise”, and I feel like that gets at why I love teaching. I’m honestly still confused about how I’ve gotten this far in my life to be in a PhD program and to have the opportunity to teach an undergraduate course, but I definitely feel like now that I am somehow here, I just want to help whoever I can. The moments that have sparked the most joy for me have definitely been when I’ve made a connection with a student and broken past that wall of professor and student to just like human and human, and then been able to use those conversations to help propel them closer to the place they’re supposed to be. I love hearing students’ dreams and interests and using information I’ve gained along the way to help them get one step closer to those things.