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Recently, a faculty colleague asked, “What do you like about your job?” For the previous 20 years, my answer to this question would have been the same. I would have quickly responded, “My students.”
However, the answer that came out this time was “I love making an impact.” As a new administrator for a quickly growing school of music, I have put all of my teaching and mentoring skills to best practice as a new director. The past year has been one of great learning, championing other people and setting significant goals. The following represent the top 10 actions, thoughts or missions that have helped to guide me through this important transition in my academic career, and I’m hoping they might also be useful to you if you are shifting from teaching to administration.
- Get a table for your office and invite people to sit at it.
And I mean all the people—administrators, staff members, faculty members, students. Invite everyone in. I know that isn’t possible in every space, but even the smallest table with two chairs creates a different dynamic.
When I leave my desk to move to my simple round table, I know a conversation is about to begin. People bring their laptops out, share materials and talk among themselves. There is no separation, and I am not sitting behind my title and business cards. I’ve had meetings with staff members in financial aid, admissions, information technology and countless other departments and areas at that table. And in just a few short weeks after I started the practice, faculty members and students also knew that the table was a place for them to come, sit and get my full attention with little distraction.
- Admit when you make a mistake, apologize and chalk it up to learning.
I’ve always told my students that I will make at least 20 mistakes per semester and that once I reach 20, I’ll bring baked goods in class the next day. They have taken me at my word, and everything from an incorrect page number to singing the wrong scale degree counts as a mistake. Laughter erupts when I say something incorrect in the classroom, and my students mark it down, secretly hoping for a pan of brownies by April.
This environment removes the stigma of being perfect at all times and creates a safe place to learn. I don’t know if I would have been able to adopt this type of classroom activity in my early years of teaching, as I was too busy trying to prove I knew it all. Sometime in the past decade, I have embraced the fact that I don’t and never will.
Similarly, in my first week leading the faculty, I assured everyone that I would be making mistakes and asked for their patience as I began to learn my new role. And just like my students, I know faculty members now feel safe coming to me and saying, “I don’t know” or “I screwed up—let’s fix this.”
- Teach a class of undergrads even when you don’t think you have time.
At the core of my professional being is mentoring and teaching. I just couldn’t conceive taking a position where I’d be removed from the classroom, so I requested to teach two sections of the same class, which would allow me to plan one set of lessons each week. Fortunately, my division has a strong coordinator, so I can concentrate on excellence and effective pedagogy within each class.
I’m grateful that I can teach undergraduate students, because it gives me a pulse on what is happening in the building. I hear the conversations while I am prepping material on the board and know what might need to be addressed in the next faculty meeting. For instance, in just the first week of teaching, I was able to see how students were sitting in the classroom and realized that those in varying majors were a bit divided.
In fact, I am able to see the entire dynamic of the school of music just by standing in front of the 8 a.m. freshman class. That helps guide many of my decisions. But most important, working with students keep me humble and always thinking.
- If you make a promise, follow through.
We all make promises throughout our academic careers, and as an administrator, I have to be especially careful about what I promise. I will not make any unless I know for certain that I can follow through on my word. “I promise you that we will make this happen” differs significantly from “I promise you I will do everything I can to make this happen.”
And if I say that I will try to make something happen, I keep everyone up to date on my progress at all times. I put it in writing and add it to my list of goals. I then post those goals on a large sheet of paper on my wall, so that faculty members can see that I am actively working to respond to their requests.
- Know your adjunct faculty members by name and the specific talents they bring to your school and institution.
My school of music currently has 10 full-time faculty members and more than 50 adjunct faculty. The adjunct faculty members are working professionals in the Nashville music community and bring years, if not decades, of professional experience to our studios and classroom. We could not be a successful program without those instructors, and I validate them every chance I get. At the beginning of each year, I have a small luncheon for them so we can all get to know each other. I follow their careers on social media, comment on their successes and share those successes with our community. Adjunct faculty members are not replaceable and are imperative to our mission. I tell them this as often as I can and bring them into the conversation while respecting their time.
- Take care of yourself mentally and physically.
One of the first requests I made to upper administration was to have a mentor on the campus. I trusted that mentor completely, and she was able to talk me down several times when I was feeling overwhelmed or unsure of the policies at my new institution. She was truly my guide.
I had a mentor off the campus, as well—someone who had been a dean of another school of music for years. He helped me with accreditation issues and moments of insecurity that only another administrator in music could understand. He became a trusted confidant during the times when I just didn’t know what I was doing.
It’s also imperative that you take care of yourself physically and step away from the office. Hire a trainer who keeps you accountable and moving. Did I have time to do this? Probably not, but seeing me return to the office in my workout gear became the norm for my students and the faculty. I was amazed at how clear my mind would be after those workouts.
In terms of mental and physical health, it’s just not something you can usually do on your own without others pushing or cheering you on. At times, you may want to quit taking care of yourself, question your move into administration or leave academe altogether, and you will need your squad of supporters.
- Set the tone.
When I arrived at the school of music, it took me about a day to realize that my team was a bit burned out and needed a morale boost. They also needed some time off. The school had grown so quickly, and there were hires to make, policies to create and spaces to be revamped. Everyone was trying to do everything and had no time for rest or reflection.
My first day was June 1, and I asked my 10-month faculty members about their vacation plans for the summer. Most did not have any and felt guilty just talking about the possibility. My first assignment to each faculty member was to send me a week during the summer where they could not be contacted. The idea of taking time off for vacation or not answering emails at 10 p.m. on a Tuesday night seemed to be a new idea. I also implemented a no-email policy after 6 p.m. or on weekends unless an emergency occurred.
As things became a bit busier in the later part of the semester, I decided to have a little test and answered every email one weekend. By Saturday morning, the emails were flying back and forth, and by Monday morning, I had a grand total of 93 emails either sent or received over one weekend. The number 93 was shared at the next faculty meeting as a cautionary tale, and I immediately saw a change.
I am trying to teach my faculty that it is OK to say no and how to find a bit of joy in the profession. Vacations are vital; rest is essential. As an administrator, you set the overall tone and attitude.
- Take a walk.
An administrator’s life can be bogged down with emails, and sometimes walking to the registrar or financial aid office is a more productive way to communicate. A face-to-face conversation often ends with a solution with no back-and-forth. A true bonus is that you begin to know the people who help to make your job so much easier.
I found that to be the case with faculty members, as well. Difficult conversations will happen—you need to expect them and embrace those moments. And while the table is an important environment in my office, the ability to walk and talk outside it with faculty members has been just as productive. In fact, I have found that faculty members are sometimes more honest beyond the building and feel freer to speak their truth.
- Champion the successes of faculty members and students.
I consider validating faculty members and students to be one of the most important aspects of my position. They make the school look good. So I do not wait until annual evaluation time to hear about the impact that various faculty members are having on their field; I request that they share such moments with me as soon as possible. Then I quickly let the upper administration know so that announcements can be made and praise given. I also attend as many of my students’ performances as I can and take the time to write personal emails following those performances.
- Change the power dynamic.
Listen to your faculty members. And when you think you have listened enough, listen some more. You work for your faculty members; they don’t work for you. Give up the power. It’s actually kind of freeing.
When I read through this list, I’m not at all surprised that the majority of my suggestions deal with human relationships. In my 20-plus years as a full-time faculty member, I led countless workshops on how best to empower students in the classroom. I use so many of those same skills in my new role. I am not seeking a legacy as an administrator. I’m simply looking to impact my campus through the empowerment of my staff, students and faculty members. And I can’t wait to see who is sitting at my table this coming academic year.