Building Community 15 Minutes at a Time

By Leslie Pelon

I will never forget the first day of my British Literature class during my final undergraduate semester. I was excited to have made it onto the roster from the waitlist the week before, since it was a popular course taught by the most beloved English Professor on campus. I knew the class would be excellent. I had no idea that it would be transformative.

There were almost fifty of us crammed into that basement classroom when Professor Walker came through the door and proceeded to greet us, each by name. No, he did not call roll or go alphabetically. He went down each row, looked each student in the face, and greeted them, “Hi Sarah, nice to see you. Ethan, welcome. Hello, Sam.” At first, I assumed he knew these students from other classes, then that they must all be students who spent a lot of time in the English department offices. It was not until this man whom I’d never met greeted me by name that I realized what was happening. Dr. Walker, a man who taught 200 plus students a semester, had memorized our names and faces off his roll sheet before coming to class.

Ten years later, I still have no idea how he accomplished that feat of memorization. From the moment I stepped into his classroom, I felt seen.

While I have yet to imitate his first-day roll-calling trick, I have worked hard to emulate many of the practices I observed him use in class. And one in particular has made an enormous difference in my classroom cultures – and student outcomes.

When it came time to submit our first writing assignment, Dr. Walker had us sign up for a 15-minute, one-on-one meeting with him. I turned in my writing assignment in the meeting and watched as he read and graded it in front of me. We spent the rest of the time talking about my writing, goals, and concerns about the class.

When we went into lockdown in the spring of 2020, all of us were looking for ways to connect with our students and keep them engaged. I was trying to figure out ways to get to know my students and impact them, when I read an article that mentioned requiring students to attend office hours. I immediately thought of how impactful that 15 minutes with Dr. Walker had been and decided to try it.

Unlike Dr. Walker, I do not grade a paper in front of my students. Instead, starting in the second week of the semester and going through week five, they are each expected to sign up for a slot and meet with me to discuss their final paper topic. I expect them to come having read the assignment instructions and with ideas on topics that might interest them. We usually spend about half the time talking about the final paper and the rest of the time discussing other concerns and interests. The meetings all end the same way, with me asking them to repeat after me and say, “I promise not to suffer in silence.”

I will admit those three weeks of the semester were long and hard. During this semester I have ninety-five students on my rolls, and I met with each one for fifteen minutes. That comes out to about twenty-four hours of student meetings over three weeks. And, of course, there is the rescheduling and the no-shows. That first semester I began doing this I thought, “Well, that was cute, but we are not doing it again.” No way could that much upfront work on my end be worth it.

I was wrong, and I have continued the practice every semester since.

After starting to require these meetings, I have seen my students’ success improve drastically. They do better on the assignment when they meet with me because I can explain it to them and answer questions one-on-one. They show up to student/office hours more often throughout the semester. Because my student has had the chance to get to know me, they have been eager and willing to ask me for help and share their insights. And best of all, I have seen them feel more confident participating in class and engaging with their peers.

Committing to intimidating or time-consuming practices is scary, and I understand why many of my colleagues call me “nuts” when I tell them about these meetings. Still, I am reminded of what I learned as a student in Dr. Walker’s class again each semester. It always pays off when instructors put forth the energy and extra effort to create relationships and connections with students.

Leslie Pelon is an Assistant Professor of History at Porterville College. Before being hired full-time, Leslie had been an adjunct instructor at PC since the Fall of 2019.  Leslie holds a B.A. in History from Brigham Young University and an M.A. in History from Southern New Hampshire University. Her master’s thesis centered on women preachers of the Second Great Awakening. When she is not teaching, Leslie keeps busy performing in plays at the Porterville Barn Theater, listening to audiobooks, and being a dance/swim mom for her two children.

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