Working in Student Affairs, I have come to see nearly every situation as a teaching moment. As many of you can attest, we always tend to think, “What can be learned from this?” or “Why did something like this occur?” Just as we look for these moments for our students or staff, we need to remember to look for them for ourselves as well. We need to make time to cognitively recognize and make sense of what we are about to do and what we just did.
We all know that “no day is the same” in Student Affairs but many times we develop a pattern, even if it is a pattern of dealing with the unexpected. While great for structure and organization, patterns can be detrimental to growth. Take the time to ask questions about why you handle situations the way you do, if not to improve upon your current pattern, at least to gain an understanding of why it works so that you can pass that knowledge along to others.
Teaching moments are essential for professional development. Instead of waiting for an annual teaching moment in your performance evaluation, ask for daily feedback from yourself and others. Now that’s not to say that you should be pestering your supervisor daily for affirmation, but you could at least re-read an email you are about to send to check for professionalism, assertiveness, tone, etc. Another self-teaching moment extremely pertinent to Student Affairs is taking time to solve problems. In Student Affairs we juggle problems as if we are an octopus in the circus, countless problems all needing our attention at the same time and we default into wanting to solve problems as soon as they arise. This is a great strategy to lessen our load quickly but it does not always lend itself to making the right decision. I encourage you to take your time solving problems, become comfortable with not making immediate decisions, and think about the implications of your decisions from every angle for this is how an upper level administrator must think. Following your gut reaction may be good for the student or may be good for the college, but take your time to devise a plan that is best for both.
A teaching moment that I allowed myself came when hiring my first student staff at my new institution. In past experiences, student ambassador, orientation leader, and tour guide positions were highly sought with a vast number of applicants. However, we did not have enough applicants to fill the open positions, several were below the required GPA, and my question about their interest was always met with “I need the money”. In my haste to solve this problem and refusal to step outside of what I knew, I turned away a number of students and set my efforts on advertising a second round of applications. When speaking with my supervisor about my dilemma, I was reminded I was not working with your typical college student anymore. Instead, I had a variety of students who not only attended class, but also took care of families, worked full-time jobs, and had faced adversity that I was probably not recognizing. Instead of trying to create a change in culture on the campus to make myself comfortable, I needed to become familiar with the culture I was stepping into. Academically perfect applicants with multiple leadership experiences may not always be best for the position, perhaps the C-average student running a single-parent household and working another job could benefit from this opportunity. In my search for the perfect team, I forgot about the student development portion of my position and in hiring students who I would have otherwise turned away, I found that what I knew to be perfection is not the best option.
As you begin to offer yourself teaching moments and let others offer them to you, you will gain the respect of colleagues and supervisors as they will come to trust your sound judgment and decision making process. You will inadvertently show empathy and convey respect. We have heard time and time again, “there are two sides to every story” and “treat others as you would like to be treated”, and taking the time to understand what is going on and why it is happening puts both of those sayings into practice.
Most importantly, do not be the person who thinks they know all there is to know about every person, every college, and every situation, because you do not. Humility is a characteristic that is often overshadowed but it is of the utmost importance when transforming into a respected administrator.
I am a doer, as are many Student Affairs professionals. We specialize in getting things done and doing them well. However, we must remember to provide teaching moments to ourselves and others if we are to truly understand the importance and scope of our jobs. I keep this Aristotle quote nearby as a reminder that teaching is of the utmost importance in my career, “Those who know, do. Those who understand, teach.”
Me (far left) and my wonderfully haphazard group of Student Ambassadors, Campus Activities Board members, and Student Government officers.