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Spotlight: Dr. John Bartelt & Teaching Strategies

“Educator Spotlight” highlights practitioners and researchers in order to learn student success strategies from them. These strategies can be evidence-based, research-based, and/or promising practices. 

Dr. John Bartelt, a University of La Verne professor of education technology, has placed in the top 10 of the highest ranked professors (per from colleges and universities across the U.S., Canada, and the United Kingdom He teaches diversity; foundations in education and education technology for graduate students; First Year La Verne Experience (FLEX) classes; and he co-teaches human sexuality with his wife, Linda. He has also taught education classes at community colleges and has provided faculty professional development workshops.


Tell us a bit about yourself.

As the son of a foreign service diplomat, I was born overseas with a diplomatic passport, and raised in countries throughout the world with levels of access and privilege that most people can barely grasp. I moved to the U.S. when I was fifteen, and, embittered by the clear racism, misogyny, and homophobia that all define this country’s birth defect, promptly concluded that I should leave as soon as I was done with high school. However, following four years in the Air Force prompted by a low draft number, and after understanding the automatic privilege that comes with being a white male, I opted to remain here to try to better the system from within. I still consider myself a globalist, though.

For a while, I produced and directed educational videos, composed orchestral scores, performed and recorded with a couple of the music icons who were my role models growing up, and served as an actor, director, and/or sound designer of over two hundred theatrical productions, including years of performing Shakespeare in schools and Renaissance Faires. But I kept coming back to teaching. With degrees in Philosophy, Criminal Justice, Counseling Psychology, and Human Behavior, I taught and counseled in Elementary, Junior High School, High School, College, and University levels, and worked with developmentally challenged adults. I also volunteered for twenty years as a grief counselor and support group facilitator for children and adults with cystic fibrosis, which, more than anything else, taught me to appreciate each breath and moment of life, and to realize that most of those medically fragile kids act in strikingly open and honest ways precisely because they know they don’t have the time to play the stupid social games that the rest of us do.

I now co-teach most courses with my spouse and life partner, who is an Adjunct Professor at both La Verne and at Citrus College. We co-developed and co-taught a Human Sexuality course a few years ago, thinking that it made sense to give students both male and female perspectives of the content, and have been voluntarily and happily co-teaching most of our courses ever since.

What are some of the specific advantages of co-teaching, and especially doing so with your spouse?

Each of us only sees the world as we are, rather than as it is, so everyone’s personal perspective is inherently biased. For some topics, like gender or sexuality, we can offer students richer and more comprehensive understandings by including life perspectives from both genders. That’s also why we personalize each content section based on our students’ questions and comments so that it’s more relatable to them.

Co-teaching with Linda has served as a breath of fresh air for both of us, renewing our passion for teaching. A few years ago, I was beginning to feel burned out by the American educational system in general, because it’s structured around teaching practices that are exactly the opposite of how we know people best learn. But co-teaching with Linda has refreshed my naïve ideal that we can make a positive difference in people’s lives through teaching.

A secondary benefit to our co-teaching is that we can each use our strengths to offset one another’s weaknesses. For example, if I’m ploughing ahead at full speed with content, Linda might slow me down and engage students in the material with checks for understanding. So together we strike a more even balance between the different vectors involved in teaching and learning. Co-teaching might not work if either of us had fragile egos, but fortunately we both grow from one another’s constructive feedback.

I view Human Sexuality as the single most important course we offer undergraduate students. It’s not a “here’s how to have sex” class, of course, but rather an opportunity to learn about giving and receiving unambiguous consent, claiming personal empowerment, recognizing abusive behaviors, maintaining good communication, understanding and embracing the myriad of different beautiful expressions of human gender and sexual orientation in the world, and much more. It is, for us, an interdisciplinary humanities course about life, and is our favorite course to teach.

Please describe strategies—inside and/or outside the classroom—that you have seen help students be successful; and, given that you’ve also taught in community college classrooms, what strategies have you specifically employed for this student population?

First and foremost, I firmly believe that you need to first tap into people’s hearts. They need to care about what they’re learning. Purely academic/intellectual exercises are never going to matter without a connection to emotional vulnerability and heart. So, we spend the time to set up a safe space in the room for everybody from the very beginning, to create a genuinely safe and trusting environment wherein every student knows they can safely take emotional risks and still be unconditionally supported by everyone else in the room. Once they’ve all made a sincere commitment to that, and our days and times together have become a sacred space of unconditional and confidential support of everyone in the group, we can start discussing the course topics on emotionally deep levels.

We go through a lot of tissues in our classes, because so few people have ever had a safe sharing space like that, even though every single one of us needs exactly that someplace in our lives. I think most teachers are afraid to allow for too much emotional depth, fearing what to say or do if students cry or share intensely personal things, but in my experience, that’s exactly when the most significant learning takes place. And since most of my personal and educational background involves psychology and counseling, I’m quite comfortable facilitating supportive conversation in an environment like that.

A course with all intellect and no heart seems pointless to me. Of course, I need to be vulnerable too, and cry, and respond to whatever I’m feeling in my own heart, because I can’t expect students to do anything that I’m not willing to do myself, so essentially, I’m trying to role model the kind of naked feelings and communication that everyone really craves deep inside, but that very few people get the chance to participate in. I think that’s why our students tend to describe our courses as more like a therapy session than a class, and why they think of their peers more as family members than as fellow students. The result of that kind of emotional vulnerability is virtually always a significantly deeper understanding of the content itself. In fact, students usually remember a huge amount of the content, as well as the experience itself, for years, rather than until just after the final exam ends.

I suppose Linda and I see ourselves being there to teach “what really matters” in the world and to our students. We could intellectually “cover” any topic on earth, but they could get that from Google without any help from us. What they can’t get any other way is the very thing that leads to the most genuine personal and global understanding of any given topic.

We always try to remember that our students are, like most people, barely holding it together, both emotionally and financially, and we can’t ignore that because it’s exactly what fuels the pyramid scheme that we’re trying to empower them to change. We tell them that males are often in the best position to confront misogyny; that straights can sometimes best address homophobia; and that whites can usually most effectively curb racism. In the same way, we believe that teachers are best poised to facilitate and focus the difficult conversations and realizations that lead to constructive social action and change. Any teacher who sees himself or herself as a mere “deliverer of content” is missing out on some immense opportunities to help change the world for the better. The paradox is that our style of teaching is almost impossible to quantify or to replicate, because every class requires a slightly different approach to best benefit each individual student in the room.

What professional development topics do you believe faculty could benefit from to improve their practice?

That’s a superb question! To be honest, I’m not convinced that any “topic” per se matters one whit. I think the key is creating a consistent environment of heart and emotional vulnerability. Faculty need to know, and be supported for, “what really matters” in their school, and they need to work in a genuinely safe and trusting place where every faculty member, staff member, and administrator, knows that he or she can take an occasional well-intended emotional risk and be unconditionally supported for it.

So, to answer your question, I don’t think the topics matter as much as the environment, although to date I haven’t seen one single professional development session that has realized that.

And I’m not talking about a bitch session, or airing gripes and dirty laundry. I’m talking about creating a space of genuinely safe and deep communication. If we can do that with students, many of whom were raised in starkly contrasting beliefs and hold vastly different life philosophies, with potentially hot-button topics like diversity or religion or sexuality, then we should be able to do it with school personnel. It takes time. It won’t be accomplished in one session. And it might never be accomplished at all sometimes, given that some groups have held deep-seated resentments for many years. (At least in a classroom, we normally work with students who haven’t literally spent decades hating one another.) But perhaps the ways in which we set up safe environments for students might serve as an appropriate and essential foundation for a professional development series.

So, forget the topic. Focus on learning how to speak with an open heart, listen to others, support one another, share what matters, and behave like people who care.

“Live authentically, love intently, and push back again the injustices immediately around you. Sound simple?  Sound obvious? It sure is. I dare you.” (Mark Morford)


Note: I met Dr. Bartelt years ago when I secured a U.S. Department of Education Title V Cooperative grant between Citrus College and the University of La Verne. As part of the grant, he provided community college faculty with trainings on how to leverage technology in the classroom. Community college faculty consistently stated in their evaluations and in focus groups the positive impact Dr. Bartelt had on their teaching.

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