The Role of Academic Leaders as Instructional Supervisors

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academic leader as instructional supervisor

When presenting at conferences, I often start by saying I have been in a classroom for 65 years. Of course, that includes my own time as a student starting at age five. Although I have not been a “student” in the formal sense for many years, I continue to learn from the teachers and leaders I work with as well as from experiences and practices.

One of the lessons I’ve learned is that while we can hope that all faculty we work with have the intrinsic motivation to never stop improving, sometimes they have to be guided, mentored, or supervised if we expect real results. This is particularly true when leading change in either professional job performance or institutional change. Establishing expectations without ongoing oversight often results in a failure to change.

I came to higher education after working in the New York City Public Schools as deputy assistant superintendent. That experience taught me that there is a place and a purpose for active supervision of the instructional practice of teachers to ensure that there is effective and purposeful interaction between the student, instructor, and material and that meaningful learning is happening. This is also true in higher education and yet I have noticed a distinct lack of active supervision of college faculty’s instructional performance and their ability as pedagogues. Instead, deans and chairpersons rely heavily on student course evaluations, and sometimes peer review, as a means of assessing the competency of faculty as teachers.

I recently served on a search committee to help identify a new dean. During the interviews, I asked the candidates what they thought was the role of chairs and the deans in terms of active supervision and assessment of the teaching practices of faculty. They responded universally that the faculty are expert in their fields and were reticent to say that they thought teaching needed to be supervised. A colleague on the committee later accosted me saying, “I am a PhD. I do not need to be supervised.”

Five steps to promoting instructional growth

Expertise in a field does not automatically transfer to effective teaching. Therefore, there is a role for the leaders of programs and departments to be active instructional supervisors of the faculty. This requires visiting classes and monitoring online instructional practices to assess the impact faculty members have on student outcomes, growth, and learning.

To do so, the academic leader must:

  • Establish norms for effective instruction. Academic leaders should collaborate with faculty to determine what strategies and practices would best serve the students. In K-12 education, there has been a strong movement to use rubrics to effectively evaluate a teacher’s effectiveness. One of the most commonly used instruments is the Danielson Rubric, developed by Charlotte Danielsen in 2011 and revised in 2013. The rubric can be revised to meet the needs of higher education teaching as effective pedagogy is the same at all levels. Similarly, Quality Matters provides an Online Instructor Skills Set (OISS) developed by QM Board member Jurgen Hilke. These instruments provide a starting place for academic leaders and faculty as they determine what is meaningful to their school and departments in terms of instructional improvement.  
  • Observe instruction as it is happening. The only way to determine if the instruction being delivered is effective is to watch it as it is happening. Once the academic leader and the faculty have determined guidelines for effective and meaningful instruction, the rubric that is developed should be used for observation of face-to-face teaching. For online classes the academic leader must have access to the course so that they can determine if the agreed upon elements of effective and meaningful online teaching are occurring.
  • Provide formative feedback. After the classroom observation, the supervisor must engage each faculty member in a conversation to identify strengths and mutually agreed upon areas for improvement, and then outline the support the leader will provide to assist the individual in becoming a more proficient and effective instructor. Just as we want our instructors to provide students with actionable feedback, the academic leader must provide actionable feedback to the instructor to promote effective teaching.
  • Create support programs. Support for pedagogical growth can come in a variety of ways. Teaching is primarily an isolated profession. Instructors interact with their students, but rarely see their colleagues teach. Break down the walls. Do you have a few particularly strong teachers who are willing to share their teaching expertise? Create an inter-visitation program where faculty can occasionally sit in on their peers’ classes. Are there faculty members willing to mentor new or inexperienced faculty? Create a mentoring program. Is there a Center for Teaching and Learning at your institution? Request a course or workshop on effective pedagogical practices and encourage faculty to attend.
  • Close the loop. Revisit classrooms to see if there is noticeable change in instructional practices. Have there been gains in any areas that were noted as in need of improvement? It’s also a good idea to compare student course evaluations pre-and post-intervention to see if the students’ perception of the teaching they are experiencing has improved.

Chairs and deans should be instructional supervisors as well as academic leaders. If this kind of hands-on supervision is a new practice at your institution, there might be some resistance. However, if the faculty is involved in determining effective practices and if supervision is formative and not punitive, the practice can be transformative. Afterall, don’t we want faculty who are not only experts in their fields but also expert teachers?

Dr. Alan Sebel is an associate professor of school leadership and administration in the Graduate School of Education at Touro College in New York City. He is a CAEP lead site visitor. Before joining Touro he was a deputy assistant superintendent in the New York City Public Schools.