Community colleges can be the best, but get the least respect

An elementary school teacher took a graduate course in education last semester here in Vermont. When her professor asked about her favorite college course, she said, "By far, the best course I ever took was US History at Community College of Vermont (CCV)." As the professor had neglected to mention the community college in

his lecture about area adult-education resources, a silence followed.

Neglecting to notice or mention community colleges' existence and the quality of their classes is

not uncommon. For 12 years, I have been an adjunct instructor at CCV, and I have received little respect from my professional friends for this work.

Having taught at five colleges, I know my most rewarding work is at community college. I find my students fascinating. They may not be the cultured, privileged kids you find at large universities, but they work hard, and they know the value of an education. These colleges are good for both students and faculty.

Community colleges warrant respect for several reasons. First, its students: Many are single parents. Most are committed to their education, seldom passing in late work, almost never absent.

I've taught students of many nationalities, mentally ill students, a deaf woman who worked with tag-team interpreters, and military personnel. I've seen students whose low self-esteem holds them back, who watch too much TV and never read for pleasure. Some haven't been to a museum or outside the state on vacation.

Classes are small - between eight and 20 students whose ages range from l7 to 70. Course offerings are substantial. We have a solid core of science, math, and business courses, plus many literature, writing, art, and language options. There are no "gut" courses. Research projects are generally required, as are oral reports.

Although instructors tailor material to students' needs, they do not water down their courses. Rather, if a student is sinking, he or she will be recommended to tutoring services or advised to drop the course. Some discover they aren't ready for college-level work.

Support services at my site are impressive, too. Workshops are held in oral presentation, grammar and usage review, algebra brush-up, and more.

All this at an affordable price - $112 per credit hour for state residents -and financial aid is available.

Most teachers at community colleges have a master's degree, and a few have a PhD. We don't publish a great deal in academic journals. We are too busy teaching. We are creative, alternating between large- and small-group activities and individual attention in the classroom. We care more about critical thinking and problem-solving than memorization.

Whenever I have a problem with a student, I can easily reach that student's academic adviser, and the three of us get together if necessary.

There is little money for faculty to attend national conferences (one of my perennial gripes), but there is some for state conferences and workshops. Here, instructors discuss techniques, lesson plans, textbooks, and strategies.

You might think instructors at community college would get tired. We do. But we believe in what we're doing - helping people change their lives.

Just last week, an acquaintance asked if I were still teaching at another college where I used to work. "No," I said, "but I'm still at community college." Hundreds of my students have graduated, many to go on to four-year colleges, even in the Ivy League.

It's time community colleges start getting the respect they deserve.

Deborah Straw teaches at Community College of Vermont in Burlington.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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