I returned to class full time last January after spending 19 years as an academic administrator at Wichita State University in various positions. Along the way, I deployed my teaching skills to effectively manage people and organizations, which I regularly referred to when asked if I had failed to teach. Although I saw my administrative roles as logical extensions of my standing as a permanent faculty member, many of my former faculty colleagues were certain that I had fallen to the “dark side”, never to reappear. While most people in college probably weren’t expecting me to return to college, I knew the time had come for me to re-engage in the work that had drawn me into the world. institution in the first place: teaching and writing.
When I returned to the classroom, my teaching was shared equally between the history department, my university hostel, and the university’s specialized college. This assignment supported my desire to create all new courses, a decision I knew would force me to reinvent myself as a teacher and force me to use pedagogical approaches that I had long championed as an administrator. Models of active learning supported by robust use of the Internet to enhance the classroom experience were at the heart of my thinking. I had no idea, however, how years of managing people at all levels of the university would inform the way I work with students and fundamentally change my approach to their learning process.
I quickly discovered that the experiences I gained in administration deeply shaped almost every aspect of my role as a faculty member, especially the way I interacted with students and the way I managed. course content. By exploring these concepts, I hope to help other administrators better understand how similar their work is to faculty, and suggest how other instructors might improve their teaching effectiveness.
The most valuable skill for any effective administrator is to communicate clearly. Being able to succinctly articulate organizational goals, provide the rationale for decisions that may not be popular, and listen to employee concerns and questions is paramount in moving an organization forward. Doing so in an empathetic, non-confrontational manner builds trust and respect between leaders and those tasked with specific tasks.
A similar dynamic also exists within the classroom, as students depend on teachers not only to teach their subject, but also to explain the goals of the learning process itself. I was struck by how the students longed to know Why they were asked to perform certain tasks and they responded positively to conversations on these topics. As an administrator, I developed an open and continuous dialogue with direct reports that allowed me to appreciate their perspective and concerns, and I found that taking the same approach with students improves class discussions and student performance. While not all students engaged with me at optimal levels, open communication allowed me to learn more about students’ distinct talents, interests, and weaknesses. As a result, I was able to better tailor their learning experience to meet their needs and understand how students, as well as employees, will go the extra mile once they believe their teacher / boss is committed to their success.
A comparable situation is at play with regard to reward structures. Most employees, whether teachers, administrators or fundraisers, are keenly aware of how their performance will be judged. I learned early in my administrative career that nothing was more important than providing regular feedback to direct reports on their work and offering clear advice on expectations. These conversations, along with discussions about career goals and ways to grow professionally, have been a cornerstone of my relationships with the people I have worked with.
While financial compensation is not a topic of conversation I have with students, grades are, and these discussions are analogous to those I have had with employees about salary increases. Like workers, students want to know how they will be judged and rewarded, and they also want assessment methods to be clear, concise and rational. Taking the time, both with the class as a whole and with individual students, to set specific expectations about grades and how to be successful in the course has taken the uncertainty and stress out of the teacher relationship. -student. Just like with the employees with whom I developed a close working relationship even though I was determining their salaries, I was able to reduce the power dynamic with the students by being candid about the reward structure.
This open and direct style of communication improves the work of employees and students. Most importantly, applying this approach to often stressful conversations has allowed me to take on the role of coach, mentor, and cheerleader for both my direct reports and my students. They have come to see me as being in their corner, encouraging their success, while holding them accountable for the highest standards of excellence they are capable of achieving. Nothing has been more professionally rewarding than seeing the people I work with, students and professional colleagues, succeed at levels they maybe never even knew they could.
Let my guard down
Perhaps the biggest difference between the job of an administrator and that of a professor is that faculty members rarely work outside of their area of knowledge, whereas administrators do so regularly. Throughout my administrative career, I have systematically supervised career professionals who had spent years developing their expertise in subjects that I knew little about when I took on new assignments. I became comfortable learning from my colleagues and not needing to be the expert in everything I was responsible for. Most importantly, I learned to take risks and make mistakes, both essential to the learning process and invaluable for classroom management in a rapidly changing world.
This was especially true for a course I designed, History Beyond the Headlines, which examines contemporary current events and helps students examine both how the news is portrayed and the history that under- tends these events. In the last semester, most of the events we explored were outside of my immediate expertise in European history, so I was literally learning with my students. Most often, class discussions centered around how I approached these topics and the questions I asked about the sources of information as opposed to the topic itself. It allowed my students to see how historians work and to gain an appreciation for the complexities of the world we live in. By transforming a history course from a content course into one that I describe as an intensive process course in writing, I exposed to students how history and the tools of a historian are fundamental to being successful. informed and engaged citizens.
Working this way also allowed me to make adjustments to the course when I realized that my beautifully detailed semester plan was not engaging students as I had expected. Here too, a willingness to take risks, to make mistakes and to admit that my students have allowed me a certain flexibility in teaching that I never dreamed of achieving before becoming an administrator. Sometimes it was as easy as changing the details of student assignments, but other times I would pivot quickly to take advantage of current events that captured the interest of students and alienated me from others who did not hold back. clearly not their attention. On occasion, I even modified homework assignments for individual students if they had ideas that differed from how I had envisioned approaching the material, but still supported the same learning goals.
This method of classroom management forced me to let my guard down and not control all aspects of the learning process. Faculty veterans versed in student-centered pedagogies will recognize this style of teaching for what it is and have likely come to a similar place in their professional development without falling to the dark side. But, for me, the path to becoming a better teacher has been an incredible journey from light to dark and greater teaching enlightenment after years of managing people and organizations. Best of all, I’m having fun doing what brought me to college in the first place. And best of all, I really feel that my students have benefited from the lessons I gleaned along the way.