Building kindness into an institutional culture

Advice on how to ground humanity in institutional practices, structures and policies to holistically support faculty and staff

Xueli Wang's avatar
University of Wisconsin–Madison
18 Jun 2024
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In postsecondary education in the US, especially within community and technical colleges, students are often top of mind for educators. My recent book, Delivering Promise: Equity-Driven Educational Change and Innovation in Community and Technical Colleges, makes it clear that educators often prioritise their students at the expense of their well-being. Unfortunately, educators’ welfare is seldom considered in student and institution success metrics. It is time for a paradigm shift, one that not only puts students first but also prioritises the welfare and fulfilment of educators. True education flourishes when everyone’s humanity is centred.

For a bit of background, in the years leading up to the pandemic, unsustainable workloads and burnout had already been an issue in academia. Covid made it more complicated; it opened the door to different ways of teaching and delivering courses, such as hybrid or fully online options. It also changed how institutions provided student services and support, with many moving these structures online. While these changes now offer greater access and flexibility for students, the tradeoff is more work for educators and fewer breaks. These challenges have led to greater burnout, higher turnover and many people leaving higher education altogether. How can we holistically support faculty and staff so they can thrive in their service to students? Here are five things you can do.

1. Communicate compassionately

Starting small, those in leadership roles can reach out to staff to check on them. As one community college vice president I spoke to described, it can be as simple as touching base with 10 people a day and saying, “Just thinking about you. How are you?” This informal practice, by email or in person, makes people feel seen and allows leaders to receive timely feedback they can use to support faculty and staff.

2. Build real trust through transparency

Trust is a critical element that deeply impacts student success and teaching efficacy. One practical way to build trust with faculty and staff is to communicate institutional priorities, such as creating new service units to address mental health or increasing the number of course offerings in a hybrid or online format transparently. If resources need to be reallocated to other things, institutions need to make that known and offer a thoughtful rationale. Openness and transparency have been proven to build faculty trust in community college administrators.

3. Introduce flexible policies

In light of the shifting workloads and expectations in recent years, institutions should develop formal policies that provide greater work flexibility. For example, remote work policies have gained traction in higher education in the last few years. Leaders will need to incorporate such options moving forward as an important recruitment or retention tool. Another way to support educators is by block-scheduling meetings during certain days and times instead of spreading them out throughout the week. This will demonstrate to educators that you value their time and help them manage it.

4. Reimagine professional development 

Institutions should repurpose existing professional development opportunities or create new ones that adopt collaborative approaches. For example, community and technical colleges can use in-service days to hold collaborative sessions for educators to talk through and problem-solve shared issues. Also, professional development should no longer be tacked on top of educators’ existing workloads. Instead, institutions can develop policies that combine professional development with already existing areas of educators’ work, such as integrating professional development and support with the faculty evaluation mechanism. This approach makes professional development meaningful without adding more to their plate.

5. Lessen the burden

Finally, institutions should regularly assess tasks or processes that are not effective or aligned with educators’ well-being. By taking a critical look at existing practices, leaders can identify areas where educators may be overburdened or tasks that no longer serve the institution’s goals effectively. For example, requiring faculty to give presentations and attend meetings about strategic goals without relating them to educators’ daily work can be demotivating. Removing or restructuring these burdens frees up time and mental energy for educators to focus on what truly matters for student success and their own fulfilment.

The well-being of educators and students go hand-in-hand, meaning that both should come first if we are to holistically support everyone in higher education. The approaches outlined above require consistent action towards a broader transformation that situates educators as the assets they truly are. This will, in turn, allow them to better serve their students.

Xueli Wang is the Barbara and Glenn Thompson professor in educational leadership at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

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