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What I Wish I Had Known About Students: An Administrator Reflects

Getting in on the ground floor as an administrator can offer viewpoints, perspectives, opinions and lessons that are simply impossible to access from behind office doors.
Getting in on the ground floor as an administrator can offer viewpoints, perspectives, opinions and lessons that are simply impossible to access from behind office doors.

An Administrator’s Commencement

In 2018 I stepped away from higher education after 30 years, moving to sunny Florida with my husband to enjoy a well-deserved future of rest and relaxation. After six months of yoga and long walks, the longing for intellectual stimulation and the desire to give back prompted me to reach out to the local college to determine how I might volunteer my services. After all, I had a long career of rich experiences to shore me up for whatever they might need. That long career culminated in the last fifteen years as a senior college administrator, ranging from various roles as a vice president to community college system chancellor. Prior to that I served in lower-level administrator roles and as a tenured faculty member.

What I Thought I Knew About Students

My later years in higher education were consumed with budgets, program viability, faculty issues, policies and procedures, and politics to name a few. Of course, as a college administrator, the students were theoretically at the center of every decision made and every direction taken. In retrospect, I unwittingly viewed students as a collective body—nameless yet present, powerful but powerless. On a typical day full of emails and meetings, students were present but always in the abstract. And although students were the ultimate constituency, it was not unusual to go weeks without seeing or talking to students, particularly as the chancellor of a college system. As an administrator, I learned to rely on others’ opinions and experiences along with research and data on students rather than first-hand experiences I had as an educator. My colleagues and I professed an earnest dedication to students, but in reality we had very limited interaction with them. 

A New Role

My belief system, my perspective and my understanding of what our students see and experience were all about to change. The college I approached (four-year, public, 4,000 students and 50% financial aid) did have needs typical of other colleges in the region, and the most pressing immediate need was for a tutor to work with underprepared students in math, English and reading. I was delighted to find out they could (and were willing) to use me and offered a nice surprise—a salary of $12 per hour. After a discussion with the Manager of the Learning Center where these services would be delivered, I accepted the challenge—albeit with some reservations about being on the front lines with students. After all, I had very little direct instructional interactions with students over the past fifteen years.

Can I Do This?

Although I had left a role that involved daily, high level decisions, I was nervous. Really nervous! 

My comfort level with English and reading were manageable, but I resorted to the Khan Academy and entry-level textbooks to ensure I knew how to assist with elementary college math. I learned (or relearned) APA, since it was required for all English classes. Thank goodness for the Little Seagull handbook, which included APA, MLA and Chicago writing/reference styles. When I received my first tutee, my heart palpitated. I hoped that I wouldn’t make a mistake or come up with the wrong answer. I had not felt this amount of responsibility and stakeholder engagement in a long time. The angst accompanying the notion that I couldn’t let students down rivaled providing testimony before state legislative committees during session. The heart rate was the same.

Professional Lessons

As I started my first day, it didn’t take long for the lessons to begin. “What has happened to our students?” I muttered under my breath, wondering when our students became so unsure of their futures (a year before the pandemic). And how did so many courses for underprepared students evolve into self-paced lessons using technology as the teacher? When did the focus shift to the right answer only—students gave me the impression that trying to help them understand was only confusing them. Not to mention that so many of our students were hungry, coming into the Learning Center just to grab a Smartee candy roll or a Dum Dum lollipop. When we later began offering Popcorn Pop-In Days and Cookie Conversations, we became extremely popular! Why do many of our students look like parents of college students rather than college students?   Lastly, is it typical that all laptops and loanable textbooks are checked out so quickly? These professional lessons and questions were part of my first day working as a tutor in the Learning Center. Many more would be learned over the next two years.

The Students

After getting to know the students, some very well, I found them approachable, interested and willing to learn if I did my part to show equal investment in our time together. To me, this meant becoming comfortable not only in my dress but my demeanor. It meant asking questions, trying to learn from the students, putting away an earlier learned administrative persona once removed from any personal stances. I discovered the professor within me from many years ago, ready to engage students, make a difference and invest in true learning. I felt I had come full circle in many ways.

What I Discovered on the Front Lines

Being on the front lines with students again was rewarding, insightful and a helpful reminder of the many reasons I went into teaching in the first place. Years later the transition from instructor to administrator schooled me on the broader impacts beyond the classroom and honed the necessity of fiscal responsibility. Now, as a tutor for underprepared students, the avenues of my life experiences merged into my role, so my lens covered both instruction as well as the deeper issues impacting instruction. It is from this perspective that I made the following observations:

  • Everything is online, and textbooks are frequently optional. Technology is more pervasive and more powerful than ever and very central to everything students do. Students must have technology, use technology and understand technology to be active participants in today’s college classroom.
  • Learning the content is abbreviated and distilled into PowerPoint slides. It was surprising to find how many online classes relied on a much-hackneyed tool like PowerPoint to summarize content. The risk is that learning the content becomes outlined if students do not read between the lines—literally. Moving beyond PowerPoint is a necessity.
  • There is a renewed interdisciplinary focus on writing. For example, history, economics and literature classes may require students to take a short story from a literature class and analyze it from historical and economic vantage points. Interdisciplinary writing opportunities bring together faculty from a variety of disciplines for a common good.
  • Math is the number one issue for most underprepared students, with more time devoted to mastering math than any other subject. I noted that many of the students being tutored were participating in a publisher-developed online math lab. Interestingly, I found when working with the students that the exercises didn’t always engage them in deeper learning or analyses but rather promoted learning from a) similar examples, b) patterns that predicted the protocol and c) trial and error correct answers. I questioned if this was the best approach for underprepared students.
  • Resources are limited, and many of the students’ informal conversations center around life’s challenges. I personally witnessed discussions about insurance, housing, transportation, affordability of materials and food insecurity. It is accurate that students who arrive in college underprepared are the same ones who are challenged by life. I heard their concerns and listened, truly listened, to their powerful voices. 

What I Wish I Had Known Then

My experiences now would have made me a better administrator then. I have personally realized that students are struggling with wellness, mental health, economic issues, families and many other concerns that impact their role as students and learners. In retrospect, I could have found more ways to volunteer my time with student groups. I could have learned some of the tools students are required to use, such as Canvas for online learning. I could have insisted on a student representative for every committee, every task force, every initiative. For administrators who have not transitioned to other things (retirement, for example), it is not too late. Find your way into the lives of students, and make time in your very busy schedules to set this role as a priority. It will pay great dividends for you and your most important constituents, both personally and professionally!

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