We know that strong leaders empower and genuinely care for those whom they lead. That empowerment and care is not expressed by the words they speak, but by their everyday interactions with the people around them.
In academic settings, leaders serve as models for how faculty can more effectively empower students. If these leaders are simply calling it in, then their faculty, especially new faculty, may experience dissatisfaction in the workplace and may eventually follow those negative examples. In the online world where facial expressions and body language are not visible, it is vital that online faculty deans adopt a ‘virtual body language’ that demonstrates a genuine interest in their faculty. Here are some tips for online faculty deans that may lead to a more positive faculty experience and even stronger faculty engagement and performance.
- Take the Time to Email – We have all had managers who write friendly and helpful email responses, while others barely respond. Routinely sending single-word or half-sentence responses can feel dismissive and sets a poor example for how faculty should respond to students. There are times when a quick email is perfectly fine, but there are also times when online faculty managers can take the time to show interest in their faculty. Whether it is starting emails by thanking them for what they do or ending the email simply wishing them a great day, a personal touch goes a long way in building a good relationship.
- Individual Exchanges – Group emails are useful when connecting with the full team, but when all the emails are group emails, the faculty member may start to feel invisible. Sending individual emails should also not be limited to when the faculty has missed a deadline, but to offer positive feedback. For example, “I like how you revisited how to write a topic sentences when you noticed your students were getting confused” or “That video you shared with students was useful in helping students see what their finished annotated bibliography should look like.” This kind of specific feedback is always appreciated and motivating to faculty.
- Visit Online Classroom Regularly – It is nice when professors feel that the dean has taken the time to go into the online classroom, outside of formal observation time, to see how they are engaging students. The idea would be to go in looking for positive aspects of the faculty’s performance. Unless glaring issues are found, refrain from mentioning areas of improvement for the evaluation tool. Instead, use this as opportunity to show the professor not just that you are checking in on them, but that you are someone who thanks and encourages their employees when they meet expectations or do something notable.
- One-on-One Meetings – If it’s not already a requirement and time permits, create a recurring schedule where you can have personal phone or video conversations with adjunct and/or full-time faculty members on a regular basis to discuss ideas, progress, challenges, new research, pedagogy, and goals. This will help you create a stronger bond with faculty and help you both discover things about each other that cannot be discovered via email alone. These meetings can also give faculty the chance to discuss concerns, which are always better addressed in a conversation. The more faculty members feel the institution has invested in them, the more they will invest in the institution and the success of their students.
- Admit When You Make a Mistake – We have all had managers who think that being in a position of power comes with infallibility. We have also had managers that treat people as they wish to be treated. If a dean forgets to respond to an email, doesn’t inform you of an important date, etc., an apology should be offered to show the professor that their time and efforts are respected.
- Empathy is Powerful – If a faculty walked into the dean’s office and shared that a loved one has died, there would probably be more time taken to comfort them. That interaction would ideally make the faculty member feel like the manager care about then, not only as employee, but as a person. This kind of care should be mirrored online through a kind-hearted email, online greeting card, phone call, etc.
- Get to Know the Courses Your Faculty Teach – It can be off-putting when a professor realizes the dean does not have a certain level of knowledge of the courses being taught by their faculty. While in some cases it is nearly impossible to get to know every course, the idea is to become as familiar as possible. Use time on a slow day to delve deeper into the online curriculum.
- Share Resources Mindfully – While it is nice for a dean to send resources such as articles on best practices or relevant research in the field, simply sending a url in a group email with the expectation that faculty will engage in a meaningful dialogue about it is not realistic. It is much more effective to send the url along with how the research could be applied in the department. The dean should facilitate the discussion by starting the conversation and offering his/her expertise.
- Professional legacy – Reflect on how your faculty see you and whether this matches with how you hope they see you. While you cannot please all faculty, do you want to be seen as someone who simply gets the job done, or someone who inspires people to go above and beyond to be the best faculty they can be?
Noura Badawi has been teaching online for more than 12 years. Her doctorate is in Higher and Postsecondary Education Administration.