Strategic Learning Goal 3: Learning Leaders
“Hire, develop, support, and empower learning leaders throughout the organization.”
An essay by Lisa Armour, Ron Colburn, and Sandy Shugart
As we refine our institutional culture consciously to put learning first in all we do, we look to learning leaders to nurture the individuals and initiatives most dear to us. Learning leaders are the faculty and staff who together create our students’ experience of college. While our students enjoy the responsibility for maximizing their own learning, they count on learning leaders to maintain an institution full of possibility. Some learning leaders have easily observable roles in that process, while others have roles that indirectly shape it. Learning leaders are found in Valencia’s classrooms, libraries, labs, offices, cafeterias, courtyards, hallways, and parking lots. They engage students in learning by aligning practices with learning-centered principles, making our environment welcoming and inclusive, and implementing systems responsive to the demands of scholarship.
There is a deliberate shift signaled by designating faculty and staff learning leaders in our Strategic Learning Plan. Valencia, in fact, was asked to formulate a goal for faculty development as part of its association with the Vanguard College consortium. We chose instead to refocus that charge and formulate a goal for all learning leaders. The outcomes associated with this goal make clear our conviction that we all have a vital part to play in institutional transformation.
The first outcome reads “Valencia provides the finest faculty and staff to support student learning.” Student engagement is a precursor to student learning; in addition, it is the most powerful predictor of student achievement. Individually, Valencia faculty and staff employ a variety of techniques to engage students. The extent to which they succeed depends on some elusive personal gifts, but also on observable professional attributes like skills repertoire, flexibility, and accessibility. Institutionally, our appreciation of the importance of improving faculty accessibility for furthering student engagement resulted in a substantial increase in the number of tenure-track faculty this year.
In order for us to powerfully engage students in learning, we must meet their basic needs for comfort and security, accurately assess them and place them in courses for which they are prepared, support them through the process of learning in every course, and assure them of their preparation for the next level of learning. We must challenge them in their coursework on the one hand, and reassure them by the familiar on the other. They need a learning environment that is rich, diverse, and responsive to their differences as learners. Recruiting, hiring, inducting, and sustaining a truly fine faculty and staff that can work together to meet all the conditions of student engagement are essential to improving learning.
The second outcome intends that “Leadership in the college is authentically shared at every level with faculty and staff committed to learning success.” With an investment in deep collaboration within our organization, we believe that we can dramatically improve learning. No one person can identify all our opportunities, but some person has knowledge of each of them as they arise. If we are careful to communicate with one another, we have an excellent chance of capitalizing on the right opportunities.
We are committed to making progress in the deep architecture of the college glimpsed through our governance structure and support systems. That progress will be evolutionary as we open ourselves to a constant critical examination of the habits we have today and will form tomorrow. Therefore, in both our formal decision-making processes and our informal habits of work, we want to cultivate a deep sense of shared responsibility, thoughtful listening, and mutual trust.
The third outcome reads “The work and learning environment is nourishing, dynamic, challenging, and fulfilling, unleashing the power of committed faculty and staff to achieve unprecedented learning results with students.” To achieve our institutional goals, we must bring out the very best in one another. That means sharing our successes for replication of best practices and extending our networks to involve one another in new ventures. It means acting as advocates for those who take promising risks. It means accepting congratulations completely and criticisms bravely. Finally, it means challenging mindless bureaucracy that kills spirit and insisting on a work community that nourishes and encourages. We should be mindful of the power of a sense of excitement about what we do. It has served us well in the past. It is a force for our future.
The fourth outcome designates that “Staff and faculty are renewed and rewarded throughout their careers.” Ideally, the recognition of contributions encourages a cycle of rededication. When we take a look at the complete career paths of faculty and staff, we would be inspired to see a system of celebration for their achievements. We can best formulate that system by listening to what learning leaders tell us they find renewing and rewarding. Performance feedback that provides affirmation and encouragement could serve as a source of renewal. Thoughtful allocation of resources for professional growth and development is a source of renewal and reward. An attractive compensation package is a recruitment tool as well as a reward for learning leaders throughout their careers.
The action agenda for producing the four outcomes associated with our goal to “hire, develop, support, and empower learning leaders throughout the organization” is a long one. Some of the most challenging tasks identified in Valencia’s Strategic Learning Plan appear on this action agenda. They include establishing task forces to improve the systems for evaluating instruction and providing performance feedback, compensating faculty, and stimulating professional growth and development. We are determined that our learning-centered initiative will be apparent in the work of these task forces. The action agenda calls us to examine our support for learning leaders across the college. Part-time or full-time, faculty or staff, all learning leaders find in themselves the capacity to improve learning at Valencia.
In the end, the college is what our students experience, no more and no less; but people determine the quality of that experience. If we listen to one another to engage in the right activities, we will create a more powerful learning experience for our students.
We are changing our culture, and sustained effort from all of us will be required to reinforce or form habits of deep collaboration so that the best elements of our institutional experience guide us. Sincerity, trust, and tolerance will take us far. Our willingness to learn is the only thing that will earn us success.
The most effective appeal we can make to our students to embrace learning is to honor its value in our own lives and in the life of the college. That is what will ultimately distinguish us as learning leaders.