Supervising Students to be Confident Leaders

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What is your philosophy for supervising students? How do you help them become confident leaders? What do you ask of them to involve them in their own supervision? Or to help you become a better supervisor. Learn how I ask students three questions to improve my supervision and help develop confidence.

Supervising students to be confident leaders

In my last post two weeks ago, I wrote about ways to advise students to become confident decision makers. It all began with a post on Facebook that asked about a philosophy for advising students. I wrote about how my philosophy is about encouraging students to talk about the decisions they want to make and to understand more about how to make better decisions.

But not all of our situations are about unpaid student leaders or student organization members. Many of us also have a cadre of students that we supervise within our job descriptions. Do you have a philosophy for working with these students, too

Ten Years of Trial and Error as a Supervisor

I spent the majority of my early career using trial and error to hire and train staff. I would mimic processes that I watched my peers using and would often struggle with holding students accountable. In the early part of my career, I just wanted my students to know and understand their jobs without disliking me. If they are also reading this post, they do know who they are.

This was essentially me through most of my 20s and mid-30s at work!

And there are many stories of students that I had hired (or probably had to hire) who disliked my supervision style. They know who they are too! Looking back, I can see that I was an inconsistent supervisor. I wanted them to just do their best and I just hoped for the best, all while trying to be likeable.

But obviously (to me at least) that isn’t the best way to continue as a supervisor. At least I knew that I couldn’t use the same strategies for advising students, since it wasn’t their understanding of the rules and policies that was important, but their accountable behavior that reflected on me and the department that mattered.

Thank you Donna!

It wasn’t until I worked with a wonderful director, Donna, who really helped me understand I had to develop a supervisor relationship that had understandable accountability. She said to me, “Joseph, I know that you want to make sure that your students like you. But what I need for you to remember is that you’re the one being evaluated on how they are doing their job. When you understand that the work they are doing is actually your work, you’ll do better with making sure they are doing it.”

At the time, nearly ten years into a career, this was what I needed to hear. It was clear to me that I couldn’t be their friend. I couldn’t be their co-worker. I had to be their boss. And that meant I would need to have tough conversations and perhaps even fire students for failing to change their behavior that aligned with the departmental outcomes.

“Joseph, I know that you want to make sure that your students like you. But what I need for you to remember is that you’re the one being evaluated on how they are doing their job. When you understand that the work they are doing is actually your work, you’ll do better with making sure they are doing it.”

I think you can be friendly, you can be collegial, you can even be invested in your students successes. But when you have a relationship that doesn’t allow you to create boundaries and hold people to consequences, then you won’t be able to have tough conversations necessary for the work.

Student Motivation Matters

When I left this office to begin my doctoral work, my motivation in education class changed how I looked at student performance in general. Our professor Dr. Robert Rueda wrote a book, the 3 Dimensions of Improving Student Performance, that changed how I approached supervising students.

Dr. Rueda identified a broken framework that focused on school reform, but I found it related to most educational settings including supervision: in his framework, school form failed because of (1) a fragmentation of approaches, (2) a misalignment of approaches and goals, and (3) a failure to match solutions to problems. His framework identified that most reformation challenges faced involved knowledge gaps, motivation gaps, and institutional gaps, or a combination of all three. But we also talked about how many systems we had in education were also broken, including supervision of staff.

This was my ah-ha moment!

Some ah-ha moments take a little longer to make sense.

During my doctoral work, I was also a graduate hall director supervising 10 RAs in my building. While I had supervised larger staffs and for over a decade at this point, I had never really thought about how and why my approaches to supervision had failed. Dr. Rueda’s approach finally gave me a language to talk to students about their gaps in achievement and behavior. In particular, I learned how to help uncover the motivation that generated excellent work.

Supervising From This Point On…

Once I learned this framework, it began nearly every employee training and supervision meeting I had with my students. I would tell my staff:

“We are going to cover a great deal of information during the training, and I expect you to ask me questions as you have them. When you begin your work, I know you will have questions about what you need to know and do. When you don’t meet the expectations of your position I am going to approach it from one of three ways.

“I’m going to ask you to identify something for me: do you understand the policy or procedure that you failed to deliver? Is the policy or procedure something that we need to update or change to match our current reality? Or are you still motivated to do this work with everything else going on in your life?”

I would also tell students that if the training they received failed to help them do the work they were going to perform, they wouldn’t be held accountable for not doing it. I encouraged them to hold me accountable as a supervisor to train them correctly and in ways that actually addressed challenges in the position.

“Do you understand the policy or procedure that you failed to deliver? Is the policy or procedure something that we need to update or change to match our current reality? Or are you still motivated to do this work with everything else going on in your life?”

And I would see their eyes light up. I had found a way to gain the trust of my students as a supervisor, by taking their experiences and opinions about the work seriously. Of course this also meant that once re-trained, they wouldn’t be able to use this excuse again.

Yes, I was definitely serious about being held accountable!

Involve Your Students in their Supervision

I also found that by involving students in the policy alignment allowed our department to collect data on how we actually did our work and allowed us to update our policies more frequently than once a year. Plus they found it valuable to say “Joseph, this doesn’t make sense. Can you help explain this better so I can do it better myself?” Being vulnerable was a great way to stay invested in better training.

But above all, asking students about personal motivation was a way to help students recognize that their personal lives mattered. That there was someone who was interested in how they performed their job. That by helping them prioritize their work meant that it would be ok if they stepped away.

Creating Mid-Level Managers

I will be forever grateful for my Motivation class. Once I began to have better supervisory conversations with my students, I was able to help my staff know they were as involved in their supervision as I was. The staff identified what was missing from training, so it wouldn’t be forgotten again. An issue that one RA brought up became a staff agenda topic. Students talked to each other about what the policies meant to each of them so we could talk about them during staff trainings.

And most importantly, once I had a method for getting students to identify their different motivations, I could teach this method to students who could be managers. By allowing students to develop manager skills that also focus on departmental outcomes and the best ways for staff to accomplish these goals, students could act in ways that still maintained collegial relationships but also helped summarize the items that needed review each week.

Asking Three Supervision Questions Works

At my last institution, I had a wonderful student manager who used this approach in his staff management. He would approach students who were not fulfilling all the parts of the position expectations with three questions:

“Do you know and understand the policy around ___________?”

“Is the policy around ________________ working in this current situation? Why or why not?”

“How can I help you address this behavior in a way that makes the most sense for you?”

We stopped the immediate negative consequences to the position accountability. People make mistakes, and often live in fear of making the fatal mistake that loses their job. Instead we approached all situations as chances to learn and grow, give feedback to improve themselves and others, and work as hard as they wanted as long as it met the position. Also, this approach allowed the manager to still stay collegial since none of the negative consequences were coming from him.

I believe we can all do better to remind ourselves that our college-based positions are also learning experiences. We can help students learn a great deal of why (and why not) to make decisions that impact their learning.

Supervising Students to Confidence

The biggest takeaway motivational supervision is students channel energy into demonstrating their best when they don’t worry about being fired for making mistakes. Confidence is built around performance that reflects their personal values and approach without being measured against everyone the same way. They look and give feedback that improves the organization rather than fear their opinions will get them in trouble.

Using this model, you can also begin to incorporate some professional development techniques, like the management plan approach. Try it with some of you students and see if this approach works for your staff.

I encourage you to look at how you are building confident student employees. How can you employ some of these techniques to improve your student employment experience? What can you do to get real-time feedback? What motivates your employees to do their best work as individuals?

Want to Continue the Conversation?

I have worked with entry-level and mid-level career professionals for nearly ten years, helping them reconsider their strengths and ways to learn new skills. Let me know if there is anything I can do to support you as you develop this new skill.

Schedule an introductory meeting so we can discuss a plan that works best for you.

The 3 Dimensions of Improving Student Performance: Finding the Right Solutions to the Right Problems – Dr. Robert Rueda

About Post Author

Joseph Rios, EdD

I am Joseph Rios and I believe that leadership is an expression of our values
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