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Informal Faculty Leadership: Spreading Innovative Teaching

Faculty Development Institutional Culture

Informal Faculty Leadership: Spreading Innovative Teaching

There’s a long-standing tradition of informal sharing of pedagogical innovation among K-12 teachers and a whole line of research on this phenomenon, which is known as teacher leadership. The same type of informal faculty leadership exists in higher education as well, but there is very little research on this topic, according to Pete Turner, education faculty member and director of the Teacher Education Institute at Estrella Mountain Community College.

In an effort to better understand informal faculty leadership in higher education, Turner conducted a study that combined faculty surveys and administrator interviews at three Landmark Learning Colleges identified by the League for Innovation in the Community College. “I wanted to find examples of informal faculty leadership. And I wanted to identify administrative practices that helped foster it and move it forward and the factors that impede it,” Turner says.

Turner coined the term “informal faculty leadership.” “It’s informal in that it doesn’t apply to elected or appointed positions. It doesn’t apply to division chairs or faculty senate presidents, although they certainly can practice informal faculty leadership. But what we’re talking about is faculty members spreading innovation to other faculty members. It’s about causing institutional change simply by a faculty member trying out something different, and as it works, spreading the word,” Turner says.

The study
The survey asked faculty members to identify practices of informal faculty leaders and administrative practices and procedures that advance and hinder informal faculty leadership. There were 52 faculty respondents to the survey.

Role of the center for teaching and learning
Respondents indicated that a well-managed center for teaching and learning plays a significant role in informal faculty leadership. The center should be centrally located to provide easy access for faculty from across campus.

“The center for teaching and learning is central to informal faculty leadership. It’s not necessarily the place where [innovative pedagogical] ideas are hatched, but they are often shared there. On the administrative side, there was some frustration that not enough faculty members would take advantage of the voluntary activities going on at the CTL. Faculty did not like having professional development imposed on them. They wanted to be able to choose the areas in which they wanted to grow. There’s this conflict between administrators saying, ‘OK, we’ll allow you to choose, but for crying out loud, show up’ and faculty members saying, ‘Don’t impose this on us. Don’t tell us we’ve got to go. Allow us the choice,’” Turner says.

The study also showed that an atmosphere of collaboration is essential to informal faculty leadership. “Every administrator will tell you that they’re for collaboration, but do they model it? Do they, in fact, invite faculty members in as one administrator said [in the study] for ‘courageous conversations’? Are they part of those conversations? Do they have a stake in that? There was one administrator that faculty members at one college mentioned who talked about collaboration and who would get their feedback but would never follow through on it. He acted like he was trying to do the right thing, but when the time came, he didn’t follow through,” Turner says.

Collaboration can help move one faculty member’s innovation and passion from the individual to the institutional level. Two of the three institutions in the study had sharing mechanisms that helped spread good ideas. For example, one campus has an online interface similar to Facebook where faculty post their assessment ideas, and the assessment committee reviews them and identifies the “innovation of the week” and “innovation of the year.” Implementing a website like this requires support from the administration because such an effort requires funding and IT support.

When it came to rewards and recognition for informal faculty leaders, faculty members and administrators in this study viewed this issue quite differently. “All three administrators talked about the importance of recognition. Faculty members didn’t talk as much about recognition as they did about removing obstacles—paperwork, bureaucratic impediments, reports. They said, ‘Free up my time, and let me do these things,’” Turner says.

Under the right conditions, informal faculty leadership can come from any faculty member at any time. A faculty member may come up with an innovation and look for ways to share it with others: “‘Look how I’m using social media in this class. Let me share this with you.’ At that point, that faculty member is an informal leader. It’s not like the faculty member is dubbed ‘Official Faculty Leader.’ It’s about one’s passion. And the best informal faculty leaders are the ones who have engaging personalities. They are approachable. They have integrity. They are all about collaboration and innovation. But it’s the sharing with other faculty members to change their practices when faculty leadership takes place,” Turner says.

One institution in the study gave an example of an idea from one faculty member that eventually became part of the institution’s identity. Service-learning on this campus began with one faculty member about a decade ago. This approach got such good results and such high levels of student engagement that the idea spread. Now the campus has a service-learning center and an administrator who actively seeks partners in the community for service-learning projects. “This is something that went from innovation to institutionalization. That takes not only the faculty member but appropriate structures and administrators willing to follow through on it and support it,” Turner says.

Institutionalizing innovative ideas can be tricky. “When you talk about institutionalizing an innovation, faculty are all for it as long as it’s a grassroots faculty effort. They don’t like the top-down type of institutionalization. All three administrators I talked to said that moving innovation into institutionalization was a huge challenge for them because they knew it couldn’t look top-down. It had to come from the ground up,” Turner says.

One institution in the study is in the early stages of implementing an institutionalization process. It starts with a good idea–something that works and appropriate documentation of what works. The faculty innovator answers the question “How do you know it’s working?” And then a committee of deans and faculty members talks about the innovation and decides whether it should be shared with other faculty members and how they might do that. “It’s a highly collaborative model with faculty and administrators having equal voices,” Turner says.

Deans’ role
Faculty and administrators in this study made clear that deans play a critical role in fostering an environment that is conducive to informal faculty leadership. “[Deans] can either be a huge help to informal faculty leadership or a significant impediment,” Turner says.

One factor that affects how well a dean can support informal faculty leadership is management of the tension between enrollment efficiency and pedagogical innovation. “If your boss is telling you, ‘Hey, we need to [increase revenue], we’ve got to have rears in the seats to make this college go, so you focus on that,’ and then here comes this guy with the research project who says, ‘It should be about learning first and not enrollment efficiency’; that’s kind of a difficult position to be in,” Turner says.

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