How Impact Academy helped me grow as a dean

Ken Coll is a former member dean of Deans for Impact. He served as a facilitator for the inaugural cohort of Impact Academy.

When I joined Deans for Impact in 2015, I was pleased to take a seat at the table with education deans who emphasized similar principles in their leadership—accountability, transparency, and continuous improvement—and I was elated to join an organization that prioritized using data-informed decision-making to support sustained improvement in teacher preparation.

Impact Academy, a leadership development experience for deans, is a way for the organization to reach new deans who share those ideals – and are eager for experiences that will help them develop the skills and knowledge they need to improve their own educator-preparation programs. I participated in the inaugural Impact Academy in August as a facilitator and also modeled sitting on the “hot seat” (a consultancy protocol of one’s peers) for the Academy’s Fellows. The takeaways from the four-day experience still resonate with me today. For the first time as a dean, I received the gift of quality time with peers representing diverse institutions and – within a structured and constructive setting – the ability to engage in learning with other deans.

During the Academy, as we discussed the challenges deans face initiating and facilitating change, I was blown away by the quality of the engagement. As one new dean noted, “This highlighting of one of my challenges is so illuminating. Through this process, I now have a clear pathway to the ‘how’, not just the ‘what’ and the solace that as I go forward, I have the support as well.”

In addition to facilitating discussions with Fellows, I also had the opportunity to sit in the “hot seat.” When the Deans for Impact team first asked me if I wanted to propose an internal challenge from my own institution for constructive feedback at the Impact Academy, I was enthused. Valerie Sakimura put it best in an earlier blog post: deans often “feel pressure in their institutions to have all the answers, which can rub against their desire to enable their organizations to learn together.” The chance to seek advice and constructive feedback from peers allowed me to open up in a way that I hadn’t had the opportunity to do previously. The insightful advice and feedback they offered broke down some of my, frankly, erroneous assumptions and guided me towards a healthier approach to improving the culture of my own college.

My hot-seat topic revolved around preparation for NCATE accreditation of our advanced licensure (graduate) programs. During the process, my leadership team and I ran into challenges in incentivizing some program liaisons to complete certain tasks within given deadlines. As I explained the situation at Impact Academy, I posed the following questions:

  • How do I better support program liaisons in navigating through potential obstacles that interfere with or barricade their progress and completion?
  • How do I confront unmotivated liaisons while maintaining a positive atmosphere and the best interests of the college?

Several deans surprised me by sharing how the issue resonated with them and reminded them of similar situations they’ve experienced. With empathy, they provided a developmental, rather than critical, approach to resolution, and focused on erasing assumptions I had unintentionally held. Through their questions and analysis of the situation, I learned that the key issue was likely not, as I thought, a lack of motivation or difference in philosophical pedagogy; rather, it was that our program liaisons did not fully understand the logistics of each step and wanted more technical support. Without the feedback I received during the Impact Academy, I never would have been as sensitive to our liaisons’ needs when I returned to the college. But with that advice in mind, I successfully provided support to our program liaisons, several of whom expressed their gratitude for my empathetic and supportive demeanor.

At Impact Academy, I pointed Fellows to William Bridges’s Transition Model as a framework for how to help faculty focus on the “how” and leave behind now outdated practices and perspectives. According to Bridges, when significant change is needed, it is critical for an education dean to understand how to both lead and engage his or her faculty in the transition process. “Change” is situational, according to Bridges, but “transition” is a psychological undertaking of accepting change and its consequent impact. Bridges’ model includes key methods people can use to support transition, a few of which I’ve contextualized here: 

Communicate clearly about the change and its likely impact and outcomes. Be honest and transparent about changes, both internal and external, and any likely effects on the college and its programs. Keep faculty up-to-date on new, relevant information from the state and university leadership when possible, and encourage faculty to share the news and insights they glean at conferences or from associations and peers at other institutions.

Meet with faculty and listen with empathy. Meet with faculty on a consistent basis. While email can be useful to communicate quickly, meeting in person allows faculty to actively provide feedback and share concerns and questions immediately. If you haven’t already, schedule meetings for the entire college, for program heads, for program areas, and for your leadership team; designate times when faculty can meet with you one-on-one, listen empathetically to their needs and establish follow-up communications.

Reward faculty on the progress they take towards accepting changes. Identify steps that faculty members could take to familiarize themselves with and adopt the change, and explicitly acknowledge and encourage them when you see them making that effort.

The Impact Academy—and what it represents—was instrumental in helping me grow as a dean. The experience provided me with the support of a group of people who could relate with me and share in the joy of learning and leading with me.

Kenneth Coll and Cece Zhou

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