Advice for New Teaching Center Directors

Image of a young child starting to put together a jigsaw puzzleThis summer a colleague who is fairly new to the educational development field asked me for three pieces of advice for a new teaching center director. I sent her a few paragraphs and she said they were helpful, so I thought I would share a slightly edited version of my advice here on the blog. As I recently shared on Twitter, I’m leaving my role as executive director of the Vanderbilt Center for Teaching in September to seek out new opportunities, and even in this time of transition, I stand by this advice.

  1. Whenever you can, water two plants with the same hose. That is, work on projects that will benefit your career in more than one way. For instance, earlier in my career, I ran a scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) project in my own class, investigating what kinds of pre-class assignments helped my students better prepare for in-class learning. This project not only helped me be a better teacher but also equipped me to consult with faculty and graduate students colleagues who were interested in SoTL, since I could leverage my firsthand experience. Another example: If you’re going to work hard to prepare a workshop on some teaching and learning topic, take a little extra time after the workshop to write something up from the workshop, either as a resource on your website or as a blog post. For maybe 10% additional effort, you have a resource that will last long after the workshop is over.
  2. Figure out what your boss’s boss wants to see from you and your unit, and direct your assessment energies that way. This advice was given to me by Matt Kaplan, director of the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching at the University of Michigan, one of the biggest and I think the oldest teaching center in the United States. I was able to determine that in my situation, the percentage of campus faculty who participated in our consultations, workshops, and programs each year was the metric that meant the most to The Powers That Be. My center set up mechanisms to track participation so that we could report that metric, and we directed our creative energies toward increasing that metric over time. I have, on occasion, consulted with teaching centers at other institutions who were pouring lots of energy into really impressive assessment efforts… that their administration didn’t care to read. In this field, doing more of the work is sometimes more useful than assessing the work deeply. But, here the key thing again: it depends on your boss’ boss.
  3. Don’t let the job take over your life. I’ve made intentional career decisions where the primary factor was the peace and health of myself and my family, and I don’t regret any of those decisions, even if they meant my CV isn’t as stellar as it could be. My CV is still pretty strong (thanks in part to #1 above), and I have a richer life for the choices I’ve made. This piece of advice gets a little easier as you get more experienced. For instance, I can prep a new workshop in a third of the time it would have taken when I started as an assistant director, so I’m more efficient with how I use my time now, which means more time for my kids. On the other hand, gaining experience can also bring tough decisions about new job opportunities that might involve bigger personal impacts, like moving your family to a new city. These aren’t easy decisions to make, but I have found it worthwhile to remember that my job isn’t the most important thing in my life.

Fellow old-timers, what advice would you give to those new to the field of educational development?

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