Creating a Successful Learning Environment

Welcome to graduate school. Here, we will find ourselves immersed in a subject that inspires us. Here, we will become engaged in conversation with masters of the field. Here, we will be mentored into a community to which we will dedicate ourselves. Of course, there is a learning curve along the way. In most respects, we expect this. There will be an increase in work time and confusion. There will be difficult times in which we feel like there are not enough hours in the day. It will feel a lot like running a marathon with shoelaces tied together. We will feel inadequate, helpless, and isolated, but hey, it’s worth it. This is what graduate school is all about, right?

Having come to graduate school after teaching at a progressive secondary school, I questioned if it really had to feel this way. I moved out of the position of teacher—helping my students to feel positive about their progress and empowering them to actively participate in their education—and into the position of struggling student looking for assistance. It was during my reflection on the first semester that I began to give myself the same advice that I would give my students and take a more active stance in my education through self-advocacy.

At the start of the school year, it seemed that fighting through the negative aspects of graduate school was the most common attitude and exactly what I tried to do. I was having trouble communicating with one of my professors, which led to relatively negative experiences in class and equally unsuccessful office hours. If I had a question, I would ask other students or wait until my understanding of the material matured, which left me with many unanswered questions. While it was clear to me that I needed to do something to improve communication with this professor, I was unsure if self-advocacy was the right approach. I wondered if it would make me appear weak.

I tried many things in place of self-advocacy, including trying to better our relationship by asking questions in different settings, reading a variety of textbooks, asking older graduate students, and talking informally with the professor during departmental teas. While these steps did not prove to be a solution, I am grateful that I persisted. It was during an informal conversation at tea that I understood my professor from a different viewpoint. We stumbled into a conversation about education and he reflected, “I would do anything to help my students succeed.” I was frozen by an inner contemplation of the words that I just heard. Could this be true? I mean, sure, I expect my professors to have a desire to see students succeed, but that was by no means what I was experiencing. In that moment, I knew that I should step up and speak to this professor about my experience. I knew that he would be open to conversation and that we would be able to work together to create a more open and collaborative relationship.

I was able to connect with my professor as an educator. I recalled experiences that I had with my students and how important it was for them to take a self-advocacy stance in their education. By working with my students to create a positive learning environment that was right for them, we grew together and we respected one another on a new level. I looked forward to speaking with my professor in order to work more closely on making my experience a positive and successful one.

I entered into his office with an open mind, ready to change my behaviors and build a more collaborative, working relationship. We reflected on the semester, voiced our needs, and made a commitment to better our efforts. After this meeting, our relationship improved considerably. Now, when I think about this professor and our positive interactions, I end up thinking about the class as well. I am excited about the material and I am motivated to move forward. By being an active participant in creating my learning environment, I had established a space in which I am able to succeed. I removed the feelings of isolation and helplessness from my initial graduate school experience and I brought about positive change and growth. It is through self-advocacy and reflection that I was able to take progress into my own hands and create a successful learning environment.

About Julianne Vega

I am currently a third year graduate student at the University of Kentucky and a Graduate Scholar in Mathematics. Prior to studying at UK, I was a middle school math teacher at a progressive, independent school in Alexandria, VA.
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