Best in the Nest: Jeff Humphrey

Jeff HumphreyJeff Humphrey is a lead instructor and professor in developmental math education at Wake Technical Community College (Raleigh, NC), where he’s worked since 2005. With experience ranging from tutoring in learning centers to teaching in the classroom, he has been teaching adults for 20 years.

Jeff has transitioned from being an effective traditional math instructor to finding success with the modular approach. However, he admits that success did not come easy! Jeff shared with us his thoughts on the modular courses he teaches and how he’s changed his teaching style over the years.

Jeff is featured in our new Best in the Nest section on our blog because of his fresh approach to challenges in education, as well as the care and effort he puts into his profession to help students succeed.

Can you tell me a little bit about your background?

I have two master’s degrees: one in divinity from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, and one in adult education from NC State. I’ve taught lecture courses face-to-face, as well as tutored online courses. I’ve taught at a learning center at a junior college and at the learning center at Wake Tech. Since coming back to Wake Tech in 2005, I’ve been teaching developmental math.

How has your learning center experience impacted your current teaching?

Learning centers prepare you to be able to teach at any given instance. In a learning center, you have people covering a very wide gamut of understanding. They could be in a prealgebra class or doing differential equations, and at a moment’s notice you have to change gears and reach the level where they are.

That experience helps a great deal with working within a modular style because you’re bringing in that skill set. In a modular course, students aren’t necessarily grouped together according to the topics they’re learning—one might be solving equations while another is doing word problems with inequalities. The approach is flexible, and individuals are learning at their own pace.

How do students of diverse backgrounds benefit from the courses you teach?

Being modular means you’re getting students into the math they need more quickly because you’re only giving them the math they need. It helps students with diverse backgrounds because you’ll have a medical coding student who only needs prealgebra unit conversions, as well as a student who’s going into engineering who needs to get Algebra 2 material out of the way.

We can focus on the math that students need at that moment in time—nothing more, nothing less. That enables students to progress more quickly toward their degree.

What are some different needs of developmental math students compared to those in college algebra or higher?

Victim mentality is an issue. Many developmental students have struggled and haven’t seen success. What has happened is they see themselves as a victim, and they get flustered to the point that they don’t know what they should do in order to be successful. For some, it’s a matter of coming alongside and helping them realize they’re no longer looking for a solution; they’re digging a hole deeper and deeper.

A lot of that comes into play with learning how to ask for help. Students are so flustered that they no longer feel comfortable asking for help when they’re spinning their wheels and getting stuck. Sometimes they keep trying the same thing and hoping that trying the same thing will magically help them get out of the rut.

I come in and let students know they can call or stop by the office. I even sometimes walk students down to the Individualized Learning Center on campus. They see that the tutors there are people too, and we get them comfortable in a new situation where they can get help.

What do you think is the most difficult part of a modular course setup for students?

Some older students are expecting that traditional course when they sign up, and then they’re a little shocked when they see the emporium style in a large lab and everyone working at their own pace. They haven’t experienced that dynamic before and may feel overwhelmed. You can help them get over that initial nervousness by explaining that something new and different can be better! You get them to understand they’re focusing just on the material they need to get into the 100-level course.

Younger students sometimes have a hard time with flexible pacing. We work with a large group of students and help them with the time management hurdle.

Additionally, just like in a traditional class, students may be getting help from a website outside of class or they use a calculator to get the answer without understanding the math behind it. At times we require students to “show all work” so they can truly learn the math; instead of just getting an answer, they must understand the material.

With Hawkes, I can see the time students are putting in. For instance, I may see students who are making unbelievably fast time on a concept that even I couldn’t do that quickly, which lets me know they’re getting help outside with technology or another student. I have a one-on-one meeting to show the students I’m not working against them; I’m trying to help them see why they’re struggling and not passing quizzes so we can work together to get back on track.

Can you talk a little about the Success Meetings that you focus on in your webinar?

These meetings are one-on-one with a student. They’re nonjudgmental; they’re not “the teacher is out to get me.” It has to be more caring and personal than that.

At the first meeting, we diagnose the problem, then I work with the student to find a solution to help them improve as they go through the course. I wait for the fourth week of classes before meeting with students individually. I used to have the meetings earlier; however, when I thought I was encouraging them at this early stage, I was actually nagging them. I learned I needed to wait for the fourth, eighth, and twelfth weeks to check in.

For example, I worked with a student with a disability who had paperwork from Disability Services saying he takes about 1.5 times the amount of time it takes other students to complete the material. I did the averages for students getting through the homework, and I noticed that student was actually going 1.5 times faster than the average student.

I waited the four weeks, and then had the first round of testing. The student failed those quizzes and tests. When I met with him, I started talking to him about how he’s going 1.5 times faster, and I asked how he’s going more quickly. The student was a little shocked at first, then he eventually said he’s been going to an external website and using a graphing calculator to get the answers.

I let him know, “Hey, you have to put away the calculator and not go to the website; you have to allow yourself to struggle to learn. And if you’re struggling, come and ask me questions—that’s what I’m here for!”

So the student got more comfortable with that module and started going through at the average pace in the next module. He passed that quiz and test. In the final module—he sometimes went faster or slower—and on the second quiz he got a 100! He now learned what it took to be successful.

What’s one of the most rewarding parts of teaching for you?

I’m now building stronger relationships with students, and those continue after the students take my class. A former student who used to be terrified to get extra help stopped by my office the other day to say hi and check in. Several students email me and tell me how classes are going. They’re not asking for help—they’re just keeping in touch and letting me know what they’re up to. Some of them are getting ready to transfer to four-year institutions.

These relationships are developing more deeply compared to what I had before in traditional teaching, when I was the “sage on the stage.” Back then, I had the same jokes to tell, same lessons to teach…Now, each week is a new story and new situation. Students see me more as a mentor or coach.

Some of the students who don’t pass my class come back and apologize. They don’t want to let me down. I let them know they’ve got to keep going, that the only way to let yourself down is to not keep going and passing this hurdle you’re trying to overcome.

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