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Impact Academy: Learning as leaders

If you’re a dean interested in participating in the next Impact Academy cohort, you can apply now here.

“As a dean of education, I have often felt isolated and alone in deciding what is good enough for my college and our teacher candidates.”

This quote, from a Deans for Impact member, echoes the reasons many of our members cite when describing why they joined Deans for Impact. Many – if not most – deans lack a trusted circle of colleagues to whom they can turn for support and advice, and many – if not most – deans lack opportunities to further develop the skills and knowledge they need to lead their programs to continually improve over time.

Over the past year, we’ve been working on how to provide those opportunities to the many educator-preparation leaders we have met who believe in Deans for Impact’s mission and guiding principles. We held a few hypotheses about how we could best support and learn with leaders: give them time to reflect and focus on the big picture, surround them with a supportive community of colleagues, and help them discover strategies, appropriate to their contexts, to promote organizational learning and lead people through change.

This August we put those hypotheses to the test when we launched the Impact Academy, a leadership development experience for deans. Eleven Impact Academy Fellows, representing a diverse set of institutions, spent four days together in Charlotte, North Carolina, working with each other and more experienced mentor deans to further develop their leadership.

The four days of the Impact Academy were the culmination of months of planning and design work – all done with the Fellow experience at the forefront. We solicited leadership lessons from our members, asked Fellows what success would look like for them, and pulled in what we know about facilitating learning and development. An advisory group of our members – Carole Basile, Jack Gillette, Cassandra Herring, Bill McDiarmid, and Ellen McIntyre – devoted hours of their time to shaping the curriculum and experience for the Fellows.

At the Academy, Fellows delved into their own leadership, articulating the values that drive them and reviewing 360-degree feedback. Case studies based on the experiences of DFI members helped Fellows grapple with how to build a culture of inquiry and empower program personnel. Fellows also applied what they were learning within their own contexts: each Fellow identified and diagnosed a challenge they were facing in their educator-preparation programs and, through an iterative and collaborative process, developed specific action steps they could take to address those problems. Fellows will continue to work on these plans throughout the academic year, and will have regular opportunities for coaching, feedback, and support from other Fellows and DFI member deans.

Fellows’ reflections on their experience at the Impact Academy confirmed many of our entering hypotheses.

  1. Deans need time to focus on the important, rather than the urgent. The Impact Academy provided protected time to focus on what deans really wanted to accomplish over the year. One Fellow said, “It was time I had to slow down and think about how to go at this from the 30,000 foot view instead of being in the weeds.” Another fellow said that she had the “headspace” to think more deliberately and intentionally about her goals for the year, instead of having to focus on putting out fires.
  2. Deans benefit from a community of colleagues to whom they can turn for feedback and support. Fellows told us that having a safe space to openly share their challenges, test their ideas, and get feedback helped them feel more confident in their work, making the “role seem feasible.” Another Fellow said it was valuable to see DFI’s members exhibit an orientation to learning and improvement: “I appreciated [the member] being open and vulnerable…and not defensive…. It humanized deans that we look up to.”
  3. Deans appreciate leadership development situated in their day-to-day realities. Fellows valued taking home to their institutions strategies and plans they could use right away. One Fellow said, “It is really individualized. You didn’t tell us what our challenge was going to be.” Another Fellow contrasted the usual professional learning experience – “You sit and listen and some sticks and some doesn’t” – with the Impact Academy: “You forced us to actually work for a few days and…it was actually invigorating.”
  4. Deans valued the process of learning as much, if not more, than the solutions to which they came. A few Fellows noted they feel pressure in their institutions to have all the answers, which can rub against their desire to enable their organizations to learn together. Fellows appreciated the opportunities to experience and test different strategies to facilitate a culture of learning and inquiry. As one of our members said: “It’s not about the search for the right answer; it’s about being bold enough to explore questions.” A Fellow described the shift in mindset he experienced, saying, “It brought me back to something we know as researchers. Some things will work, and some won’t, but that’s the nature of inquiry. You have to test it out.”

The Fellows are embarking on courageous work this year to ensure their educator-preparation programs are meeting the needs of the students and families in their communities, and to ensure that they, as leaders, are doing their own learning to advance this mission. We hope the Impact Academy experience and community will support them on this journey. We’ll continue to share their stories from the Impact Academy over the next few months.

To hear more reflections from Fellows about this year’s Impact Academy, watch this short video:


Valerie Sakimura

Vice President of Program


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