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Affirming Online Faculty

The EvoLLLution | Affirming Online Faculty
As faculty become increasingly distributed—a trend driven by the growth of online education and the increasing reliance on adjunct instruction—it becomes more and more important for institutional leaders to go take greater strides in recognizing the accomplishments and talents of their educators.

“I want to be part of your mission.”

These are quite possibly the eight best words I’ve heard in a long time. Arguably, they are the most coveted words in the world of faculty or teacher development. Although I’ve probably heard them in many different guises over my 20-plus years in education, when I heard them from a friend and colleague the other day, they resonated and sang to my heart.

I’d say I’ve been lucky to have been part of many student success-driven teams of teachers and academics over the years, but the truth is, it’s not luck. My colleagues and I have worked incredibly hard to make it look easy. What happens behind the scenes can be messy. We deal with a wide range of proprietary technology and technology systems that have their own quirks. We develop savvy workarounds in order to deliver a smooth student or teacher experience. We passionately explore and debate the best avenues to meet learners where they need us. We talk to some of the best minds in the industry to broaden our perspectives (in some cases, we need look no further than the next cube over to chat with an expert in the field of diversity or first-generation online learners, for example).

With all of this inspiration and all of these great minds close at hand, we could easily get wrapped up and lose sight of an integral part of our work and our mission: our faculty.

I recently did a quick experiment (admittedly not all that empirical) wherein I Googled “faculty development” in conjunction with the following words:

  • Celebrate/celebration
  • Recognize/recognition
  • Awards
  • Honor
  • Team
  • Respect

You probably already know what my ultra-scientific results were: extremely low tallies for each combination. Frankly, I was astounded that these words didn’t come up together in meaningful ways, and appeared even less frequently within the same sentence.

Why is it important that these words are part of our daily vernacular as we look to support faculty and further their development in today’s higher ed landscape? The first thought that comes to mind for me is that the faculty members our team works with are primarily online and work from their homes across the country. We don’t see them face-to-face all that often. Yet they are the ones who carry our culture to our students. They are the ones having conversations with our students deep into the wee hours of the night, clarifying concepts, providing insights, offering encouragement and kindling fires of interest.

The challenge we face, then, is twofold. We need to ensure that our faculty know they are appreciated for their passion and excellence, and we need to somehow overcome the physical distance that is inherent to online education. Our team has always looked for innovative ways to meet this challenge, and in the past year we’ve happily seen many long-term, interdepartmental initiatives come to fruition.

“Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable.”

~ David Augsburger

In one initiative, members of the Academics team, including deans and Faculty Training & Development within the College of Online and Continuing Education (COCE), have organized Faculty Summits in cities around the country where we have higher concentrations of faculty. These faculty summits have been invaluable. Faculty have shared what they need for support, their triumphs, and their hopes for our students, while we’ve shared our vision and information about new initiatives. Mostly, they’ve helped us connect.

Partnering with other teams across the COCE to conceptualize and deliver synchronous webinars and town halls with question-and-answer components has allowed us to bridge the physical distance in a very different manner. These webinars and town halls have provided another way we can honor the time and effort our faculty dedicate to us and to our students and serve as additional opportunities for growth. Q-and-As and follow-up surveys let faculty talk directly with administrators and their peers or provide anonymous feedback and requests, depending on their personal needs and comfort level.

Over a year ago, two of my teammates led the charge for the inception of the COCE Award for Outstanding Instruction (CAOI). Great things take time, though, and this inaugural class has shown us many times over just how important this type of recognition is. Six of our seven recipients were able to join us for the two-day celebration, and the conversations were truly inspiring. In moderating a panel discussion, I was struck by a common thread that emerged: Meeting the other award recipients was like meeting up with old friends. Each of these wonderful educators felt an instant camaraderie and connection with the others. What was more striking was that they each could see themselves within each other and within their respective deans. When we visited other groups in the Millyard, including our academic advisors and instructional designers, they once again felt this recognition. It was like one big, ongoing round of Namaste.

Being known that deeply and seeing that spark of yourself within someone who otherwise could be a stranger is truly affirming.

As one of our CAOI recipients, finance instructor Sherri Jenkins, said:

When I think of the people that I’ve engaged here at SNHU, it’s the fact that it is a community. It’s about passion; it’s about togetherness; and it’s about a family. I think when you work in an environment where they actually care about you, you not only want to give the best to them, but to your students, which is the reason why we’re here. …To see the other people around this table, it’s like you’re looking in the mirror. It’s almost because SNHU has that idea of what they want in terms of that commitment, that feel, that passion, and I see it in every person that works here.

Another recipient, composition instructor Jessica Bacho, added:

I think that one of the common misconceptions about teaching online is that it’s a very solitary thing. But I’ve never once, though, felt that I was alone at SNHU, and I think that’s the biggest thing for me. Walking in from the moment training started (online), I knew who to go to for questions, I knew who to go to for help to help my students. And that’s, I think, what I love the most—that it truly is a community.

Mathematics instructor Ilanit Helfand reflected that it’s often natural to work more with struggling students than those who are excelling and more independent. She shared, though, that with our affirmation of her work, she wants to complete that circle for our students and plans to “redouble [her] efforts to give positive feedback and value to those students.”

Many of our adjunct faculty have taught, or still teach, with other institutions. This certainly is very common in higher education, as adjuncts cobble full-time work out of many jobs. So, again, looking back to the first part of our twofold challenge, how do we ensure that our faculty know they are appreciated for the passion and excellence they show within our community? Making the time to forge connections is certainly paramount, but also openly sharing our values with our adjunct faculty and reaffirming that we believe in their ability to transform their students’ lives through teaching is crucial.

Making a concerted effort to provide our faculty with varied opportunities for affirmation strengthens and galvanizes our community. That one uniting spark is our shared mission: providing our students with the best educational experience in the world. So how do we, as a larger community of non-traditional and online learning, keep this affirmation of faculty at the forefront of our day-to-day routine? We could take the words of one of Jessica’s students to heart: “You’re a great instructor, but more importantly, you’re a great, understanding, human being.”

In the end, we must remember that what really matters is the human connection and the transformation it can spark.

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