What Makes a Great Instructor?
Connecting the Dots Between Faculty Excellence and Student Outcomes
Long before the first instructor was hired and the first student enrolled, Tarrant County College made a commitment to faculty excellence. Founding Chancellor Joe B. Rushing, in a 1966 newspaper op-ed, put it very simply by writing, “A college is its faculty.”
But what constitutes excellence and how can one measure it? Dozens of faculty and administrators are working on those questions, and the answers may have a profound impact on how faculty are evaluated, promoted and granted tenure. The vehicle for those answers is the Faculty Framework for Student Success.
The study began in 2018 when the faculty leadership asked the administration to address a matter that had been hanging around for decades, sort of like a squeaky hinge that finally gets so annoying that it gets oiled. At issue was the perceived difficulty of faculty in technical programs, who aren’t required to have graduate credit hours and often do not, to be promoted under a system weighted toward advanced academic credentials.
The faculty, said Shereah Taylor of TCC South, were not necessarily looking for a comprehensive overhaul, but were convinced by Provost Elva LeBlanc that one was needed.
They didn’t take much convincing. “The current evaluation instrument really does not speak to what we do,” Taylor said. And Kevin Harper from TCC Northeast said, “The way tenure and promotion has worked hasn’t changed very much in, like, forever.”
Campus administrators didn’t need much coaxing either. “The deans, department chairs and everyone have been asking for an updated evaluation process for years,” said Lisa Benedetti at TCC Northwest. It’s not just that the current process is old, said TCC Trinity River’s Thomas Mills, “It’s that, moving forward, it really wasn’t going to be enough for us to create the culture for student success that we are aiming to produce.”
The focus was to recognize the quality and depth of performance and contributions that faculty make to student success, connect the dots between faculty success and student outcomes.
Provost Elva LeBlanc
Student success, indeed, was the whole point. “The focus was to recognize the quality and depth of performance and contributions that faculty make to student success,” LeBlanc wrote in describing the plan to create the framework. She reasoned that since excellent faculty contribute to that success, such a framework would “connect the dots between faculty success and student outcomes.”
The project employed two groups—a core group to begin development of the framework and an advisory committee to serve as a sounding board, reviewing the core group’s work and offering recommendations. There was turnover within the groups over the years to bring more voices to the process.
Core group members first sought to define the mission, roles and responsibilities of the faculty and then, with these in mind, to decide which areas of focus should be the foundation on which to build the framework. Three such areas emerged: teaching/learning, service and inquiry/scholarship.
Ideal faculty members serve their students through teaching excellence, serve both the College and the greater community, and serve themselves through additional education and scholarly activity.
The next task was to identify categories within the three areas:
- Teaching/Learning — Expertise and innovation in pedagogy (teaching) and curriculum
- Service —
- Institutional engagement (service to the Institution),
- Professional engagement (service to the profession and community); and
- Engagement (service to the community), and,
- Inquiry/Scholarship — Scholarship and educational attainment.
Finally, the team would identify activities within these categories and how faculty could either meet or exceed expectations in each activity.
TCC Southeast Dean Tommy Awtry provided an example. “Take service to the profession,” he said. “There’s a difference between someone attending a professional organization’s conference on one hand and presenting at the conference or helping plan the conference or being an officer in the organization on the other. The first might meet expectations and the others exceed expectations.
“Because of this, we now have a list of what’s expected of folks, and I think faculty would appreciate having such a list. It’s good for them and good for those who are tasked with evaluating faculty. It lets people know if they’re doing their job, if they’re doing it really well and maybe if there are things that need to be worked on. The framework allows us to answer those kinds of questions.”
The process, while straightforward, was lengthy—by choice. LeBlanc wanted extensive back-and-forth between core group and advisory committee members. She wanted feedback from the faculty at large and in early 2020, took a prototype of the framework on tour, speaking to and taking questions at faculty meetings at all six campuses. “She kind of shared out the work of the group and took the temperature of the faculty to see what their response was,” Mills said. “There were a million different questions pertaining to the direction we took.”
“Dr. LeBlanc has done a wonderful job of leading the charge and making sure the faculty have had a voice throughout the process,” Benedetti said. “Those meetings were very interactive, and she collected feedback to bring back to the work groups. We took all that and factored it in.”
“It was a lot of work and a very powerful way to connect with faculty,” LeBlanc said. “The entire experience was very positive and reminded me of the importance of having continuous conversations with faculty.”
The latest version of the framework came out in April 2021. It contains 19 expectations and 46 ways in which they might be met. It even addresses the question of promotion for technical program faculty that set everything in motion. Graduate work and advanced degrees are still mandated and in the same quantity, but other doctoral programs are recognized besides those in the teaching field. It’s what Harper called “a tall ask” for someone who has no graduate credits, but, as Harper said, “It’s still an improved pathway.”
No one expects a faculty member to exceed expectations in every category or even make the attempt. “Of course, you’re going to be stronger in some areas than in others,” Awtry said. “Your strength might be in teaching and not in professional development, but I think that what we have in the ‘meets expectations’ column applies to everyone.”
This framework likely will not be the final one. Discussions still occur and other aspects of faculty work may pop up in the future, but it’s sufficient for the next stage to begin, which is how the new tool is to be put to use. That effort began in May and will result in a new process for faculty evaluation.
“We’re going to dig into the evaluation process, moving it from the framework to the tool,” said Benedetti, who is on one of the reconstituted work groups. “My understanding from our first meeting is that we hope to have the completed recommendation by next summer.”
Everything that has been done or will be done takes its inspiration from the Three Goals and Eight Principles, or 3G8P, that provide guidance for every phase of college life.
“Over the years I have learned that people perform best when they are happy, have positive views of the organization, its people, and are motivated by the work itself,” LeBlanc said. “So, what motivates TCC faculty and staff? Students! And the Three Goals and Eight Principles also focus on students.”
And when people’s governing philosophy aligns with their motivations, it makes those dots all the easier to connect.