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2013 January 21 - 12:00 am

POV: Leave the Cave: Professional Development To Improve Student Success

In today’s community college, the last thing a president needs is a group of “cave dwellers” busily working away at their little slice of the “big picture,” without peeking out of their caves to assess the rest of the institution. In Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, the cave dwellers perceive their reality differently than it actually is because they are blind to the truth of what is going on outside.

At a time when teaching and learning in community colleges are under increased scrutiny, diligent management of all sectors of the community college experience — academics, student services and college operations — is essential. In particular, community college leaders now recognize that the professional development needs of faculty, staff and administrators must be addressed.


Unlike secondary educators, many community college faculty and staff come to their jobs with little formal training other than their content expertise. This absence of professional training might have remained under the radar if the accountability spotlight had not shifted from access to success. As long as few questions were asked about student outcomes, some institutions had little motivation to enhance their professional development programs.

Now, however, the growing dissatisfaction with academic achievement and workforce competencies of community college students suggests that it is time to examine the professional development of community college educators.

Professional development includes a range of activities designed to improve, renew or assist employees in their different roles. The purpose of these activities can vary widely and may not foster a unified college-wide initiative, such as student success. In the extreme, decentralization of professional development can be viewed as working in a cave — each unit doing its own thing.

People need to come out of their caves! To increase student success in community colleges, greater opportunities for collaboration between faculty and staff must be created. The results of this collaborative effort can then inform the design of systemic professional development efforts.

During a recent visit to a community college, I met with the college’s student success committee, which included the college’s president. He arrived frustrated and stressed about discouraging attainment levels of students in remedial courses. He was concerned about what to do with faculty who seemed to function exclusively at the tactical level. Faculty taught their classes as assigned, but they seemed to do little more.

They seemed disengaged from the greater strategic direction of the college. Their pedagogical practices were all over the map. They appeared to embody little commitment to tweaking classroom practices to improve student outcomes. The president attributed these problems to a dissonance between faculty interests and the academic preparation of students. When we analyzed the situation across the entire campus, we found the situation extended beyond individual, departments and classrooms. The college had created a culture that emphasized faculty and departmental independence.

The result was a cave-dwelling environment with a “do your own thing” mindset. The school’s culture had inadvertently been complicit in building the very caves that were now the source of the problem!

We also learned that while the president had a strong vision and passion for his student success and completion agenda, he never boldly communicated this vision to the college-wide community. The attitude at this college was “as long as I do my thing reasonably well, then everything’s good.” This mindset provides no opportunity to examine how one’s individual work impacts on the larger campus and no incentive to think outside the cave.

So how can community college educators transform professional development activities to address the shared needs of faculty, staff, students and the overall mission of the institution?

The interrelatedness of the challenges facing community college students serves as a reminder that the responsibility for supporting student success must be shared between all stakeholders. Individual, departmental and organizational realities must merge to address the holistic student experience.

The central question becomes: Can community college leaders empower stakeholders to emerge from their caves to transform professional development practices, improve student success and promote the overall effectiveness of the college?

As a higher education strategist, I provide coaching services to higher education institutions throughout the United States. In this role, I’ve observed that while some educators are passionate about their own jobs, they do not always understand the connection between their jobs and their college’s wider initiatives.

They don’t see that bright-line connection between their own small roles and the institution’s broader mandates of completion and student success. This cave-dwelling phenomenon manifests itself in a number of ways:

  • “That’s above my pay grade” mentality, used to avoid taking ownership for a problem.

  • “This is my space” syndrome, exhibited when employees are reluctant to accept input from outside their department.

  • “That’s not in my job description,” heard when employees choose a finite focus on their duties at the exclusion of broad-based participation.

To light a fire for student success-driven professional development programs, top community college executives need to establish institutional perspectives and policies; clearly state their vision; provide employees with professional development resources; and link employee incentives to student success.

Professional development in the name of student success must take into account the ways the college and its constituents define student success and function together. Do the employees work together effectively to make the entire college a success? To build a student success-based professional development process, a college might conduct data analysis. They might tee up task forces, interviews and questionnaires to illuminate likely causes for the disconnects plaguing the institution.

The identified gaps can then be analyzed, action plans formed, and solutions employed. This is by no means a linear process or a quick fix. Feedback from all stakeholders, including students and trustees, should be elicited throughout the process and used to make adjustments to the action plan as necessary.

Two major challenges accompany any college-wide student success approach to professional development.

The first bridge to cross is to assess the operative culture and climate in order to define student success and the existing professional development issues. Secondly, the president must communicate a central and consistent message about student success at the institution. For example, will professional development include all faculty, staff and administrators? What do all employees need to know about student success in terms of completion rates, ethnic minorities, cultural differences, non-traditional students and alternative lifestyle issues?

No matter how these questions are answered, the president’s message to the campus community must be threefold: 1) dealing with student success is not negotiable; 2) a student-success orientation is the way we do business; and 3) student success is our basic commitment to educational opportunity and excellence.

Colleges are being challenged to respond comprehensively to the moral, social and political issues of educating students. This cannot be done without professional development for all employees. It cannot be done without facing the reality that some of the existing classroom and service delivery practices are not reaching the students who most need them.

Professional development activities must take the form of programs and processes that are compatible with the learning needs of students, the needs of the college and all stakeholders within the institution.

I believe that successful professional development practices may be less dependent on multiple activities than on a sense of shared vision and a systemic effort on a united front such as student success. Professional development for student success must involve the organization in its entirety, with evidenced support from senior-level leadership and strategic engagement by all cave dwellers – whoops, stakeholders — from all levels of the institution.

Christine Johnson McPhail, is emerita professor of higher education and founder of the Community College Leadership Doctoral Program at Morgan State University. This article is the continuation of a series authored by principals involved in National American University’s Roueche Graduate Center and other national experts identified by the center. John E. Roueche and Margaretta B. Mathis serve as editors of the monthly column, a partnership between NAU’s Roueche Graduate Center and Community College Week.
For additional information send emails to emails to mbmathis@national.edu or, call 512-651-4781.

It’s YOUR TURN CCW wants to hear from you!
Q: What professional development activities do you think best further the overall mission of community colleges?
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Also from Christine Johnson McPhail, Managing Partner, The McPhail Group

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