The Community-College Interview

The odds are against candidates who are unfamiliar with our values and don't speak our lingo

Chronicle of Higher Education
February 13, 2006

As you prepare for an interview at a two-year college, keep in mind that your chances of getting the job depend more on your ability to speak the language of community colleges than on any other single factor.

In my experience 19 years as a faculty member, department head, and dean at two-year colleges one of the main reasons that otherwise-viable candidates do poorly in an interview is that they don't understand community colleges. They're unfamiliar with our values and don't speak our jargon.

Do you know what "the community-college mission" is? Do you understand what faculty members at two-year colleges mean when we talk about"teaching and learning" or "the learning campus"? Are you familiar with various learning styles, and can you identify them and explain to the committee how you would accommodate each in your teaching? And what will you answer when a committee member asks about your "use of technology in the classroom"?

Those are among the phrases that, I've found, either leave candidates looking confused or elicit responses that have nothing to do with the question.

Take the matter of the community-college mission. You may be required to discuss that topic in writing, as part of the application process, or be asked to talk about it during the interview. Not to be glib, but you can't go wrong with some variation on the following response: "Community colleges meet students where they are and take them where they need to go." Because that's the simple truth.

It's important for you as a candidate to understand, then, that even though some of your students may be above average in terms of intellectual ability and academic preparation, you will also have some who are going to require all of your teaching skills to reach. It's even more important for the search committee to recognize that you understand and embrace that fact that you're not just another research-oriented, frustrated job-seeker "settling" for a position at a two-year college.

The mission of the community college is not just teaching, it's also learning. That may sound suspiciously like academic doublespeak. It's not. When we talk about teaching and learning, or about the learning campus, we're really emphasizing, once again, the primary mission of the college: not merely to teach, but to ensure that students learn.

Whereas certain professors or programs at more selective institutions may take pride in "weeding out" those students who "can't cut it," community colleges and their faculties are committed both by charter and by disposition to helping every student "cut it."

The focus is not on the professor, but on the student, the learner. Faculty members at two-year colleges are both trained and predisposed to consider the student first when developing course materials, activities, even the overall approach to the course. We've learned that traditional methods of delivery, like lecture and class discussion, may work fine for some students in some situations but might not be sufficient to help every student master the material. That kind of extra attention to the learning process is both expected by the institution and, in most cases, personally important to the faculty member.

Which brings me to "learning styles." Research has shown that not all people learn in the same way. Some learn best by listening, others by reading. Some are highly visual, others more hands on. Good teachers understand that their students come to them with different learning styles and incorporate into their teaching activities that appeal to each style as opposed to merely lecturing, which reaches only auditory learners.

Search committees at two-year colleges will expect you to have at least some familiarity with learning-styles research and to have given some thought as to how you might deal with different styles in your classroom. I would recommend that you not rely on my one-paragraph synopsis. Do your own research.

Finally we come to the issue of technology, as in "Tell us how you use technology in your classroom." I've heard too many candidates respond to that question by mumbling something about e-mail or talking about how their students have to write their term papers on a computer. Those answers are not going to impress us.

That's because, despite our annual budget contortions, many community colleges are remarkably advanced technologically. That may be, in part, because we teach so many courses in information technology and related fields. Or perhaps, given our student-focused approach, we simply spend what money we have on tools for improving teaching.

Whatever the reason, a large percentage of community-college classrooms contain at least one computer and a data projector, while many are fully outfitted for 25 or 30 students. A surprising number even have interactive whiteboard technology.

I say surprising because surprise is often the reaction when friends and colleagues from research universities visit our campus. They're shocked to find that our classrooms are, by and large, better equipped than theirs. It's no wonder, then, that many first-time candidates for two-year-college teaching jobs, who, as graduate assistants, were probably relegated to the worst rooms on the campus, have no idea what we mean by "using technology in the classroom."

Understand that, for us, technology is a tool possibly the primary tool for transforming the classroom from the traditional "sage on the stage" to a true learning-centered environment. Through selective use of Internet resources, streaming video, and presentation software, to name a few applications, instructors create engaging, interactive lessons that appeal to a variety of learners. Of course, not all instructors use those tools, and some use them far more than others. But community colleges are definitely looking for new faculty members who both can, and will, use them.

That said, it isn't absolutely necessary for you to know how to manipulate a SmartBoard or have experience with streaming video going into the interview. If your community-college campus is as wired as most, you will have ample training opportunities once you're hired. The important thing is that you understand what those tools are for and demonstrate a willingness to use them.

Armed with a new vocabulary and bolstered by your own research you should come across in your interview as someone who knows what two-year colleges are all about and who shares our vision.

My hope, of course, is that you will actually become that person, not merely present yourself as such. More than anything else even more than new computers we need excellent teachers who are committed to the community-college mission.

If that describes you, I wish you the best of luck.

Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English and director of the Writers Institute at the Lawrenceville campus of Georgia Perimeter College.