Teaching lessons that a professor learned as an administrator (opinion)

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I returned to the classroom on a full-time basis last January after spending 19 years as a university administrator at Wichita State University, holding a variety of positions. Along the way I deployed my teaching skills to effectively manage people and organizations, something I regularly referred to when asked if I missed teaching. Although I regarded my administrative roles as logical extensions from being a tenured faculty member, many of my former faculty colleagues were certain I had descended into the “dark side,” never to re-emerge. While most people at the university probably didn’t expect me to return to the faculty, I knew the time had come for me to engage again in the work that had attracted me to the institution in the first place: teaching and writing.

In returning to the classroom, my teaching was equally divided between the history department, my academic home, and the university’s honors college. That assignment supported my desire to create all new courses, a decision I knew would require me to reimagine myself as a teacher and force me to use pedagogical approaches I had long advocated for while an administrator. Active learning models supported by robust use of the internet to enhance the classroom experience were central to my thinking. Little did I know, however, how years of managing people at all levels of the university would inform how I worked with students and fundamentally alter my approach to their learning process.

I quickly discovered that the experiences I gained from administration profoundly shaped almost every aspect of my role as a faculty member—particularly how I interacted with students and the way in which I managed course content. By exploring those concepts, I hope to help other administrators better understand how similar their work is to that of the faculty and suggest how other instructors might enhance their teaching efficacy.

The most valuable skill for every successful administrator is communicating clearly. Being able to succinctly articulate organizational goals, provide the rationale behind decisions that may not be popular and listen to employee concerns and questions are paramount to moving an organization forward. Doing so in an empathetic, nonconfrontational manner builds trust and respect between leaders and the people responsible for carrying out specific tasks.

A similar dynamic also exists within the classroom, as students depend upon faculty not only to teach their subject matter but also to explain the goals of the learning process itself. I was struck by how students yearned to know why they were asked to do certain tasks and responded positively to conversations about those topics. While an administrator, I developed an ongoing open dialogue with direct reports that enabled me to appreciate their perspective and concerns, and I found that taking the same approach with students enhanced class discussions and student performance. Although not every student engaged with me at optimum levels, the open communication provided opportunities for me to learn about students’ distinct talents, interests and weaknesses. As a result I was able to better personalize their learning experience to meet their needs and understand how students, much like employees, will put out extra effort once they believe their teacher/boss is committed to their success.

A comparable situation is at play when it comes to reward structures. Most employees—whether faculty, administrators or fundraisers—are acutely 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 about how they were doing and offering clear guidance about expectations. Those conversations, along with discussions about career objectives and ways to advance professionally, were the cornerstone of my relationships with the people I worked with.

While financial compensation is not a topic of conversation I have with students, grades are, and those discussions are analogous to the ones I had with employees about pay increases. Like workers, students want to know how they will be judged and rewarded, and they also want the assessment methods to be clear, concise and rational. Taking the time, both with the class as a whole and with individual students, to lay out precise expectations about grades and how to be successful in the course helped remove uncertainty and stress from the faculty-student relationship. Just as with employees with whom I developed close professional relationships even though I determined their salaries, I was able to reduce the power dynamic with students by being up front about the reward structure.

This open and direct communication style enhances the work of both employees and students. Even more significantly, applying this approach to what are often stressful conversations has allowed me to assume 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, rooting for them to succeed, yet all the while holding them accountable to the highest standards of excellence they are capable of achieving. Nothing has been more professionally rewarding than watching people I work with, students and professional colleagues alike, succeed at levels they may not have even known they were capable of.

Letting My Guard Down

Perhaps the single greatest difference between the work of an administrator and that of faculty is that faculty members seldom work outside their knowledge area, whereas administrators regularly do. Throughout my administrative career, I routinely supervised career professionals who had spent years developing their expertise in topics about which I knew little 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. More important, I learned to take risks and make mistakes, both of which are vital to the learning process and invaluable to classroom management in a rapidly changing world.

That was particularly true for a course that I designed, History Beyond the Headlines, which looks at contemporary news events and helps students examine both how the news is portrayed and the history that informs these events. During this past semester, most of the events we explored were outside my immediate subject-area expertise in European history, so I was literally learning right along with my students. More often than not, class discussions centered on how I approached those subjects and the questions I asked about the news sources as opposed to the subject matter itself. Doing so allowed my students to see how historians work and gain an appreciation for complexities of the world we live in. By transforming a history class from a content course to one I describe as a writing-intensive process course, I exposed students to how history and the tools of a historian are fundamental to being informed and engaged citizens.

Working in that manner also enabled me to make adjustments to the course when I recognized my beautifully detailed semester plan was not engaging students as I had anticipated. Here, too, a willingness to take risks, make mistakes and admit that to my students allowed me a degree of flexibility in teaching I never dreamed of achieving before being an administrator. Sometimes it was as simple as altering the details of student assignments, but other times, I pivoted quickly to take advantage of news events that captured student interest and away from others that clearly did not hold their attention. Occasionally, I even modified assignments for individual students if they had ideas that differed from how I envisioned approaching the material but still supported the same learning objectives.

This method of classroom management required me to let down my guard and not be in control of every aspect of the learning process. Faculty veterans versed in student-centered pedagogies will recognize this style of teaching for what it is and probably arrived at a similar place in their professional development without having descended to the dark side. But, for me, the path to becoming a better teacher was an amazing journey from light to darkness and greater teaching enlightenment after years managing people and organizations. Even better, I am having a blast doing what brought me to the university in the first place. And best of all, I have a real sense my students have benefited from the lessons I gleaned along the way.

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