Archived Voice Articles
Faculty "wellness program" thrives
By Sally Jongsma
This year’s new faculty members recently finished teaching their first three courses at Dordt College. They also completed a fourth “course” or, more accurately, seminar. The new faculty orientation seminar in which all new faculty members participate ended in December. In previous years the orientation began in September and ran all year. This year's sessions began in August.
“It makes more sense to cover topics like preparing course syllabi, understanding assessment procedures, learning about campus resources, being introduced to the history and mission of the college, and meeting people from other offices before classes begin,” says Dr. Calvin Jongsma, who has coordinated the program for the past five years. Jongsma proposed the change last year, and this year shared responsibility for the two-week August session with Dr. Barb Hoekstra, the Coordinator for Instruction.
Recognized as strong teachers, Jongsma and Hoekstra combined their expertise and personal strengths to reshape the seminar so that instructors, especially first-time teachers, would have more concrete instructional help before they met their classes. Jongsma brings both a long history with the college and a broad philosophical understanding of the mission of Dordt College. Hoekstra, who describes herself as very practical, recently completed her dissertation on teaching Christianly and brings practical instructional expertise. Both have a passion for teaching and for the education Dordt College provides its students
Dr. Calvin Jongsma has led Dordt's new faculty orientation for the past fiver years, each year refining it to make it more relevant. This year involved the biggest change since he's begun, a pre-semester two-week session in which he shared coordinating responsibility with Dr. Barb Hoekstra, Dordt's Coordinator for Instruction.
“It just worked,” says Hoekstra of the two weeks. “Discussions were very rich, free flowing and peppered with humor, laughter, and personal anecdotes.” The morning sessions were divided in half, combining more theoretical discussions with practical information. Seminar participants read fifty to eighty pages of material for each day, learning about Dordt’s history and confessional and ecclesiastical context, examining its educational statements, and digging into books on Christian teaching and curriculum. They also developed a strong sense of camaraderie, were introduced to writing course syllabi, learned where to get things copied, and discovered who to contact when they needed something.
Hoekstra, who works with faculty to keep raising the level of teaching and instruction at Dordt College, describes the approach as a “wellness program,” getting people ready before they begin so that they have the tools they need to be good teachers. She is co-leader of the pre-semester session, giving direction on issues of pedagogy. In addition to sharing her expertise, she gains a better sense of the faculty needs she should address in her role as coordinator for instruction.
The coordinators tell participants that the purpose of the orientation is “to acquaint you with what makes Dordt College tick and help you develop in ways that will better enable you to contribute to and renew the Christian academic culture of teaching and scholarship the college strives to maintain.”
Jongsma shares another goal for the program. In the past decade, there’s been a sixty percent turnover in the Dordt College faculty, and Dordt is not alone in this situation. Institutions across the country are seeing large numbers of professors retiring. To maintain an institution’s identity, its faculty need to know what that identity is and how they can contribute to it. “This is especially true in mission-driven institutions like Dordt College,” says Jongsma.
He tries to help new faculty understand Dordt’s mission and its vision for achieving that mission. Faculty need to be able to work together to fulfill the educational goals that have made Dordt College the institution it is, Jongsma says. “This gives a venue for both the institution and its new faculty to look at each other and see if they like what they see,” says Jongsma, who plays no role in assessing faculty for contract purposes. He enjoys moderating a frank and open dialogue between differing ideas and points of view to help people find common points of reference.
Jongsma also tries to be a resource for faculty as they work out the college’s vision in their teaching and scholarship. “Dordt’s educational documents are not just hot air—they really function,” he says. He offers assistance as faculty go through some of the professional steps required on the way to permanent contracts.
Each year’s group of new faculty is different. Some come in with professional experience or a strong academic background but little or no teaching experience. Others may come in as experienced teachers but still need additional academic training. Some know a great deal about Dordt’s vision, others know only a little. Trying to meet all of those needs can present challenges, but it’s exciting, say Jongsma and Hoekstra. As this year’s program concludes, they look forward to similar lively and thoughtful discussions with a new group next year.
New faculty member Gary De Young appreciated the comprehensive nature of Dordt’s new faculty orientation program. An experienced teacher, he has been through four faculty orientation programs ranging from “Here is your office. These are the courses that you are to teach” to a few days focusing on policies, procedures, and information. “Dordt’s new faculty orientation program recognized the needs of new inexperienced faculty by offering intensive help on the details of course preparation and by helping us reflect on what it means to teach at a Christian institution of higher education. The new faculty orientation program is essential for new faculty to feel a part of and to participate more fully in the vision of Dordt. The importance that Dordt places on this is reflected in the reduced teaching load of new faculty, and this is not lost on the new faculty.”
Through it all, strong relationships have been established. New football coach John Heavner says, “The new faculty orientation has been very helpful to me. I have most appreciated the relationships I have developed.”
Others expressed appreciation for the balance of philosophical and practical issues addressed. All felt they benefited.
“I liked the round-table atmosphere. We had a sense of going through important matters together, even when we were being instructed,” said one, and another noted that while it required time and effort, “It didn’t really feel like work.”
Said a third, “I think it is a great way to start life at Dordt. I now know eight other people who will be encountering a lot of the same experiences and challenges that I will. I am comforted to know that I can count on them to be a support throughout the year.”