It’s easy for administrators to stay in their ivory towers and never actually interact with the students they lead, but taking simple steps to meet your students can change and improve your leadership.
In this article you’ll learn about:
- Why Meeting Your Students Matters
- Simple Tips on How to Meet Your Students
When I was in college, the only time I ever met an administrator was on my graduation day—and then, only because I was a marshal for my college and shook his hand for a picture. He was a great administrator, and he led the College of Education at Penn State well, so this is not meant to put him or any other administrator down. This is about one simple thing that even great administrators can do to be even better: getting out there and meeting your students.
I have no doubt that you know who your students are on paper, but how well do you really know them? If I lined 100 of your students up in front of you, how many would you be able to call by name? It’s so easy to stay in your office and never really get to know your campus population.
Why Meeting Your Students Matters
It’s one thing to look at stats and reports, and another thing entirely to actually get out there and talk to your students. Ineffective leadership can stem from not truly knowing the people you’re leading. If you’ve ever had a job where the boss or CEO was so far removed from the day to day that they just couldn’t relate, then you know what this is like from the other end.
As a classroom teacher and a freelance writer, I’ve had the unique experience of creating educational content for students I actually know, as well as for students I have never met. When I create content for the students I see in my classroom every day, it’s easy to know what to write because I know what skills my students have already mastered, I understand their personalities, and I know if they’re struggling in a particular area.
When I write content as a freelancer for students I’ve never met before, it’s so much harder. Do they need five practice questions about author’s purpose, or am I beating a dead horse? Will they understand my sense of humor? Are they going to resonate with this pop culture reference, or are they already talking about the next cool thing?
This same concept translates to leadership on a larger scale. When you try to lead without truly knowing your audience, you’re making your job so much harder—and your audience can see right through that.
It Improves Morale
When students don’t know their leaders, they can get a bad taste in their mouth when those leaders try to make changes or implement/enforce rules. They may think, who are you to tell me how I should learn?
Researchers from Frostburg State University found in one survey of college students that 44% felt like their professor had given up on them at some point. Maybe that’s been your own experience as a student and you can relate. Imagine how it would feel to be in that situation and have an administrator—someone who is actually in a position to help—reach out to ask how you’re doing and make your education better for you. Imagine how validated, seen, and heard you would feel.
I went to Penn State—a very large school where some of my classes had 700+ students in the course. Many of my professors didn’t even know my name, so to have an administrator say hi to me and call me by name on the sidewalk would have made me feel like my voice actually mattered in a sea of students. Obviously at a large school like Penn State, you’re not going to reach every single student on a personal level, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. It’s kind of like the starfish parable; you can’t do it all, but you can do what you can.
It Helps You Focus Your Leadership and It Shows That You Care
When you know your students, how they’re doing in their classes, and what they’re struggling with, you can focus your leadership on making changes that actually matter and make a difference. When students feel heard and know that their thoughts and opinions matter, they feel safe to speak up and be themselves.
When you’re out there talking to your students and really getting to know them, your actions show that you truly care about them, their wellbeing, and their education. When leaders and administrators show up to big events like freshman orientation or graduation, that’s nice, but it doesn’t give you a chance to genuinely interact with students in a profound way. The same goes for sending a mass email around the holidays—there’s nothing wrong with these appearances and communications, but they don’t come across as genuine or personal care. So how exactly do you meet your students in an authentic way?
How to Meet Your Students
This all sounds great, but how are you realistically supposed to do this? You already have more on your plate than you can handle, and you don’t have enough time to get it all done as it is. Before you just write this off, remember how important it is and decide to make it a priority. Some of these ideas below could even take as little as 15 minutes.
Walk Around Campus
What do you do when you need a break? Walk around your office? Look out the window? Make small talk with your secretary? Scroll through your phone for a few minutes?
Instead, how about trying this: take a 15-minute break every day to walk around campus and strike up conversations with students. It’s only fifteen minutes, and the fresh air and physical activity will probably help you be more productive when you get back to your office. Avoid falling into the trap of doing this in the same place at the same time every day. Vary where and when you go so you run into different students every day.
Sure, you’ve read over the course descriptions and you know your professors, but do you actually know what your students are learning on a daily basis? Are you familiar with the classroom culture and what you could be doing to make it better?
Simply sit in on some classes. If you work at a large university, nobody will even notice that you’re there. You could even ask professors if they would be willing to let you step in as a guest lecturer for a day. Learn more about how this can be beneficial from these elementary and secondary school administrators who actively visit classrooms and even teach lessons.
Hold Office Hours
Just like faculty does, hold your own office hours once or twice a week when students can drop into your office to talk to you. Make sure you fully advertise this and make students feel welcome to actually come. Administrator’s offices can be scary and intimidating places for students. Encourage them to come by if they have questions or concerns, or just to talk and hang out.
You probably go to more than your fair share of events, but try to think outside of the box here. Go watch an intramural volleyball game. Support the women’s soccer team. Help a campus club hand out flyers in the student center. Make some opening remarks at a play or concert on campus, then stay for the show. It doesn’t matter if it’s not your thing. Your presence alone says a lot.
Take a nod from the show “Undercover Boss” and learn more about your students by getting to know them, without them knowing who you are. You may need to add a clever disguise if your face is easily recognizable around campus, but there are a lot of easy ways to do this. Pose as a worker in the dining commons or a maintenance worker in the dorms, for example.
When your students don’t know who you are, they’ll have their guard down. You’ll learn more about them this way, and they might be forthcoming in talking about ways the leadership at your school can improve. You might need some thick skin if you try this out, but it will only improve your leadership.
It Doesn’t Matter How You Do It, Just Get Out There
I challenge you to get out there and meet your students this year. Don’t just do it during welcome week, homecoming, and graduation—times when it’s convenient or expected. Do it all year long. Get out of your office and get uncomfortable. When you’re sitting at your desk and you’re frustrated or stuck on something, take a break and go see your students. Start by taking that 15-minute walk. You’d be surprised by how much a little human interaction outside your daily routine can really turn your day around and make you a more effective leader.
About the author:
Alicia Betz earned her bachelor’s in education from Penn State University and her master’s in education from Michigan State University, where she also earned her certificate in online teaching and learning. She is a high school English teacher as well as a professional writer specializing in education. She uses her experience in the classroom both as a teacher and a student to write actionable and authentic pieces for various educational publications. Alicia can be reached at www.saiwriting.com.