ACN – We’re All in This Together

Spring 2017 faculty member, Brittney Christy offers great insight into ACN and her transformation as a teacher through her reflective blog article.

When I arrived at ACN back in January, I had no idea how much this teaching experience would shape my views on higher education. I signed on for a semester of teaching in Norway because I thought it would be a unique experience and a good opportunity to travel. It was indeed both, but it also exposed me to an educational environment wholly different from anything I’ve seen before.

ACN is a unique program, acting primarily as a liaison for Norwegian students wishing to study in the U.S., and as an exchange program for American students looking for an opportunity to study abroad. I taught two writing courses at ACN, both of which I’ve taught at the University of North Dakota (UND) where I’m a doctoral student. Going in, I knew that teaching a class of mostly Norwegian students would require some special considerations, but I assumed that the teaching experience would be otherwise the same: I’d see my students twice a week for class and maybe (but not likely) once or twice during my office hours. However, my first tour of ACN revealed a more intimate learning environment than I’d expected.

All of ACN is housed in one building, which means that classrooms, study spaces, administration, and lecturer offices are all under one roof. It’s by no means cramped, but it’s cozy. The housing is close too, and many of the students were my neighbors.This meant that I saw almost all of them every day. At first, I felt a little unnerved by the proximity. I’m used to a teaching environment that’s more traditional, meaning, separate. Students and teachers walk in two worlds, colliding briefly in the classroom. ACN doesn’t function that way. It’s the one room school house of higher education, giving every person at ACN the chance to be seen and heard equally.

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My office was located just outside the study area, so if I needed to talk to one of my students, I could usually find them. More importantly, if they needed me, I was too conveniently located to ignore. At UND, my office might be across campus from where my students live or take their other classes. My office hours might be during their work or practice. Students might have to make special appointments if they want to talk with me, and that inconvenience becomes a deterrent. That means questions go unanswered, frustrations go unvented, and students don’t get the help they need when they need it.

Having such a tight community at ACN means that students don’t disappear like they sometimes do at larger institutions. When one of my students at UND stops turning in assignments or showing up to class, it’s harder for me to track them down. But when all the classes are in the same place and I see all of my students every day, it’s harder for them to fall between the cracks.

When students, teachers, and administrators share one roof every day, a different kind of educational community is formed. Accessibility means support and the potential for tighter bonds. ACN fosters a strong sense of community, and because all of the students are taking other classes together, they are a tighter group than any given class at UND. They are more comfortable together which means they communicate better in class, ask more questions, and feel less shy about sharing their work or ideas in class.

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Proximity at ACN also fosters emotional maturity. At big schools like UND, a conflict between two students or a student and a teacher can easily go unresolved. A large student body makes it easy to hide from conflicts. At ACN, hiding from conflicts isn’t possible. Seeing the same people every day means unresolved problems fester and become uncomfortable. It’s easier to resolve the issue than try to hide from it. As a result, I saw a high level of emotional maturity in my students, largely in their ability to voice concerns and frustrations both to me and to their classmates. I did more interpersonal communication in one semester at ACN than four years at UND. It caught me by surprise, but working through conflicts helped us build stronger relationships. It also gave me the chance to better see the world through my student’s eyes and to understand what they needed from me.

The college experience is supposed to be more than just book learning. It’s meant to encourage personal growth and help students become thoughtful people who will go into the world and contribute to their local and global communities. Building relationships through strong communication is a big part of that, and a year at ACN prepares students in a way that a large university can’t. ACN is a small program, and it doesn’t have the resources that a large University like UND has. That’s the trade off. But students who have the opportunity to spend a year or even a semester at ACN, get to experience a learning environment completely different from anything else they will encounter.

For me as an educator, this experience helped me see the difference that proximity can make. When I return to my position at UND in the fall, I won’t have the same access to my students that I had at ACN, and there’s not a lot I can do about that. But I can take what I learned at ACN and try to reshape my classroom so that we’re all more accountable to one another, especially when it comes to building a classroom community through good communication. And it’s a good reminder for me that even though I walk in a separate world from my students, I don’t have to encourage that separation. A lot of good can come from better communication and understanding another’s experience, and I thank my ACN students for the education they’ve given me.

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