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The events of 2020 -- COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, anti-Asian and Pacific Islander violence, among others -- impacted all of us in a myriad of complicated ways. Many of those have been stressful and catalysts for resiliency and transformation.
One major change in the United States came in the form of colleges shifting from in-person to online learning. To support that change and its impact on students, many instructors received training on how to conduct classes online and facilitate effective class check-ins, as well as to assess and support student needs. Such trainings, focused on student success and well-being, were absolutely necessary. However, supporting the emotional well-being of faculty themselves is also an increasing need, as they have certainly been experiencing the same stressful events.
Throughout the past academic year, our program at Columbia University's School of Social Work hosted Faculty Support Spaces, weekly online meetings facilitated by the deans of academic affairs; advising; diversity, equity and inclusion; and the online campus. Those spaces were an opportunity for faculty to drop in to share, reflect and witness the thoughts, feelings, emotions and experiences of others in the community as a means to connect, process and support. As hosts of those meetings, and as a faculty member who attended them, we found they revealed this type of support was needed well before COVID and should remain a necessary staple moving forward. Now that we’ve entered the new academic year, we think that, regardless of whether faculty members have remained remote, returned to campus or work in a hybrid model, implementing such meetings and supporting faculty well-being is vital.
Lessons Learned From Hosting Faculty Support Spaces
We would like to share how hosting faculty support spaces can benefit your institutions, along with some strategies to help you feel prepared to offer them.
Building community. Fostering a sense of community throughout the faculty, especially among adjuncts, can be difficult regardless of whether your team is working remotely, in person or both. Feelings of isolation and disconnection may have always been present for some people, but for many, those feelings began or increased as a result of shifting from in-person to virtual workspaces. The faculty support spaces allow familiar colleagues to reconnect and also encourage new relationships among faculty members who might not have met otherwise.
The increased sense of community and connection among our faculty came from creating a space in which they shared openly and felt understood, acknowledged and engaged by the deans. Positive interactions within the support spaces have also helped faculty overcome some of the common fears of asking for assistance. For example, some faculty may fear that asking for help, support or even feedback will make them look bad, needy or incompetent in the eyes of their administration. But by attending the meetings, faculty are able to witness their peers asking for and receiving help in an encouraging and collegial environment.
Problem solving around classroom experiences and policies. Because teaching can be an isolating experience, particularly remotely and at the adjunct level, it can be difficult to know when to ask for support -- and that can prevent helpful discussions from occurring until after an issue has reached a crisis level. Additionally, those discussions usually take place via a one-on-one format, placing the administrator in the role of sole problem solver.
We found that as our faculty became comfortable asking questions and receiving help in this group setting, they began to openly share their concerns and experiences, leading to many valuable discussions. For example, one concern was how often to check in with students about serious current events and the impact that addressing those events, or not, has on our students. Some students desired an opportunity to process such events, while others wanted the class to be a respite from the tragedies happening around them. Conversations around such issues transformed problem solving into a communal activity.
Actively participating in such problem solving and supporting their peers, rather than being present to only ask for help themselves, can increase a faculty member’s sense of autonomy, competence and relatedness. And that can, in turn, help reduce burnout and improve student outcomes.
As part of the problem-solving process, meeting hosts can refer faculty members to supports already in place that may be able to address their concerns or the student needs being discussed. For instance, making referrals to the offices of advising, sexual respect or disability or to the office of diversity, equity and inclusion can simultaneously address an immediate need and educate those in attendance about the relevant resources. Such referrals also reinforce to faculty members that they are not alone in their mission to support student well-being and success.
You can also use the meetings to discuss academic and administrative policies as well as to identify needs for additional training. For example, in our program, instructors create their own rubrics for grading student participation. During the meetings, faculty discuss the pros and cons of their practices, learn from each other, and implement modifications to best serve students. Those conversations have also informed a faculty training on grading, rubrics and feedback for equity and inclusion.
At the same time, other policies required by the institution must be implemented consistently across all courses. The meetings provide space for faculty to ask for clarification, share feedback and ensure they feel adequately prepared to carry out those policies. Such dialogue around policy implementation often leads to policy revisions and trainings that better meet student and faculty needs.
Acknowledging the importance of predictable and accessible support. Hosting the meetings online can reduce barriers to attendance even as classes and co-curricular activities reconvene on campus. Faculty members juggle many responsibilities that may require travel to various locations (e.g., campus, home and multiple jobs) throughout their busy week. Being able to attend meetings without the need to commute to a specific location can aid in boosting access and attendance.
Scheduling the meetings on a consistent and ongoing basis throughout the academic year also allows faculty to add the meetings into their schedule as well as to know that, if a situation arises, the next support meeting is only a few days away. For example, our meetings were held weekly, alternating between Thursdays and Fridays in an effort to accommodate various faculty members’ schedules.
Identifying administrators responsible for supporting classroom instructors. If providing these types of faculty support spaces is new within your unit, you should identify or assign administrators to the role of supporting faculty and hosting these meetings. During the meetings, those administrators should use empathetic listening, be willing and able to engage in effective problem-solving strategies, and refrain from becoming defensive even when faculty complain about the institution or them personally in some way. Finally, administrators should repeatedly invite faculty to attend the meetings and not interpret low or fluctuating attendance as a sign of inefficacy. As faculty members have positive experiences of feeling heard and supported during the meetings, word will spread that these sessions are a good use of their limited free time.
Tips for Hosting Faculty Support Spaces
Since hosting these meetings may be an extra task to add to your plate, try to keep it simple. First, we recommend selecting a team of people -- which could include deans, department heads, senior faculty or administrators -- instead of having one person facilitate. Using a team approach spreads out the workload, promotes collaboration, builds in a support group for the meeting hosts and allows the sessions to still be held even when individual hosts have scheduling conflicts.
The meeting agenda can also be simple, with no slides or materials to prepare. During our meetings, we welcomed attendees and asked them to introduce themselves. Then we opened the floor for faculty to share whatever was helpful for them, gave some time for responses and concluded with thanks to those who joined.
Second, use existing web tools. For example, hold these sessions using the web-conferencing platform of your choice -- no conference room to book or snacks to purchase. Also, invite faculty via email without requiring an RSVP. Forgoing the RSVP establishes an informal drop-in feel and allows attendance to fluctuate. Anticipating these fluctuations in attendance kept our motivation up when turnout was low.
Third, have fun. We found these sessions to be personally enriching and a highlight of our day. We felt more connected to the other deans on the team and to the faculty who participated. We received a lot of positive feedback from those who attended, as well as from those who did not but appreciated knowing the resource was there if they needed it.
Faculty support spaces have proved to be a useful tool in supporting our faculty through building community, problem solving and identifying areas for additional training. We hope that you’ll consider hosting similar meetings in your program this fall.