The Importance of Creating Peer Networks in Developmental Education

By Dr. Carolee Ritter

A quick virtual show of hands—how many of you, when you were young, aspired to be teachers when you grew up? How many of you aspired to teach students who are underprepared or struggle academically? How many aspired to teach struggling or underprepared students at a community college?

The developmental educator, particularly at the community college, is, in many ways, an invisible profession. Outside of community colleges (and even inside some), it has been, in many places, eliminated—deemed redundant with the teaching that taxpayers have already paid for with K-12 education. At most four-year colleges and universities, developmental education is pushed out through competitive admissions and standardized test scores. At Colorado State, where I worked for a time, it was relegated to a condemned building. A committed composition/rhetoric faculty worked mostly in the shadows of the university to ensure that the underprepared students who were admitted to the college were given some support and instruction before throwing them in to college-level writing classes.

Even within our colleges, your work isn’t obviously visible when we look at the new health sciences building going up outside, or our beautiful creative works publication, Illuminations. It isn’t really seen or understood by your peers in other programs who have program entrance scores that require college-level readiness.

This kind of invisibility runs the risk of being isolating for developmental faculty.

W. Norton Grubb, in his book, Honored but Invisible, argues that that teaching, particularly teaching at the community college, and, I would argue, particularly teaching at the developmental level, “should be viewed as a collective activity rather than the individual and idiosyncratic effort that it usually is.”

He talks about how the ways instructors teach can be profoundly influenced not just by the students who come to us, but importantly to the networks of peers they create (or fail to create).

He talks about the frequent failure of community colleges as teaching institutions to invest time and resources in teaching our teachers how to teach and do research and to offer communities so they can talk to each other.

This is what makes the Nebraska Developmental Education Consortium and their annual conference so special. Your organization was conceived and nurtured by and for developmental faculty in their own effort to create a community, to create a network, and to make teaching a collective activity.

On the NDEC website’s home page, it says, quite simply, “We are a group of teachers from Nebraska community colleges who invite other developmental English teachers (reading & writing) to build this state-wide community that shares resources and energizes one another.” And now, of course, starting this year, NDEC welcomed developmental mathematics faculty to join the conversation.

In posts in the NDEC Facebook group and the posts on this NDEC blog, these are the words that repeat: “community” (community of practice, community-centered practice, classroom community), “empathy,” “relationship,” “validation,” “sharing,” “listening and seeing,” “connection.” Phip Ross reflects on David Katz’s talk about building reward pathways in the brain through the power of “we,” “us, and “together” language and thinking. These shared values make NDEC a very special group of educators, striving to make their teaching a collective activity and their work visible.

Over the past several years, we have seen the power of joining the Nebraska community colleges as a collective. We’ve done statewide work on aligning developmental curriculum and establishing placement scores in reading, writing, and math. Some work has happened on collaborating to establish multiple measures for student placement into English and math courses. Math faculty have partnered with high school math faculty in the Nebraska Readiness in Math Project to improve the math preparedness of high school students intending to pursue career and technical education degrees.

There is really exciting work happening now with exploring best practice for online education for developmental students, with implementing carefully considered means of accelerating student progress toward college-level ready, and with identifying and instituting multiple measures to place students into English and Math classes.

I encourage you all to continue to find ways to share and create community among the developmental educators at your individual institutions and across the state. I encourage you to continue to work toward continuous data and research-informed innovation and improvement of developmental education in the state. Continue to strive to make your work visible—not just to one another, but to your institutions, your boards of governors, to your constituents, and to the profession at-large.

The NDEC 2019 conference agenda is an excellent example of what makes developmental education in Nebraska special. I hope those of you who were able to attend found the conference an opportunity to build community, to share freely, and to listen carefully, and that those of you who were not able to attend this year, will join us in 2020.

**Editor’s Note: This post is modified by Dr. Ritter from her opening comments at the NDEC 2019 Conference in Lincoln, Nebraska

Dr. Carolee Ritter is the Dean of Arts and Sciences at Southeast Community College. She can be reached via email at