Report to the Board of Trustees, June 2017

Thursday, October 26, 2017 12:11 PM | Sean Williams (Administrator)

NOLS Instructor Association Report

Sean Williams, NIA President

Spring, the slowest season for NOLS field instructors, has been humming along as usual at the NIA. We have held branch meetings in Patagonia and the Pacific Northwest and a women’s specific meeting at the Rocky Mountain campus, which included discussion of women’s progression to Course Leader and family planning for field instructors. The Annual General Meeting, scheduled for May 15th at the Faculty Summit, will include a presentation of the Lifestyle Survey results (as did the Pacific Northwest meeting).


The NIA Board has continued to refine and organize our internal operations, spending time this winter organizing a clearer structure, with working groups and lead positions on key tasks, and instituting a regular budgeting process. We have spent considerable energy brainstorming and exploring new avenues for fundraising. Twenty dollars per member per year from 300-odd members does not go a long way in funding the kind of professionalism and productivity needed by the faculty organization for a school of NOLS’ scope. Hopefully the future will lead us to some solution; in the meantime, we will soldier on just as NOLS did for decades, with our strongest assets not located in the bank.


We are continuing to explore options for another survey in the near future. One idea would focus on compensation received or offered at other outdoor-based organizations, while another is to find a way to use faculty voices to articulate the value of NOLS semesters whose enrollment has recently suffered. Yet another is to gather lessons from successful senior faculty about how to make a NOLS career work, to share with newer instructors in a statistical, rather than anecdotal, form.


On a similar note, NIA Board member and NOLS Wilderness Medicine instructor Adam Baxter is exploring a pilot version of Morgan Dixon’s “Teach for America idea,” (although he thought of it on his own). The goal would be for NOLS to harness the industry power of its alumnus faculty to provide career assistance outside of NOLS for current instructors. Several contacts in the rock and alpine guiding industry have expressed interest in inviting NOLS faculty to “shadow” their guides or take on other apprentice-type roles, which might lead to a more lucrative and sustainable post-NOLS career for those instructors. Other organizations, which operate primarily in NOLS’ off-season, rely heavily on out-of-work NOLS instructors to staff their courses, and might be eager to establish this relationship more definitively. The NIA may be able to serve as a semi-formal clearinghouse or contact center for these career relationships, helping underemployed instructors to fill the gaps in their schedule and helping senior instructors to successfully leverage their NOLS experience into other careers. As discussed during the NOLS Branding Initiative, both of these outcomes could help expand NOLS’ positive presence on the market by ensuring a steadier supply of satisfied former instructors, the kind who move on from NOLS gracefully and happily and would be more likely to spread the word to potential future students or faculty. As with the NIA Mentorship program, the NIA may actually be in a better position than NOLS to fill this role.


Finally, as in the past several years, we included a survey of priorities for the NIA to focus on in our 2016 Board elections. Voters ranked seven priorities in order of importance. The most chosen was “Ensuring instructors are represented at all Board of Trustees meetings”, and the third most was “Advocating for a salaried Faculty Chair to represent instructors at the EDT level” (the second most popular was “Championing continued increases to the travel reimbursement”). Inclusion of working faculty at the highest levels of NOLS decision-making is clearly a priority and an area of concern for instructors, and is a core element of the NIA’s philosophy of Faculty Engagement.


We at the NIA have been working from the ground up to establish better conditions for such an outcome: educating ourselves and faculty members in general about how NOLS works and how and why decisions get made, so that their comments and contributions are better informed, and providing ideas, solutions, advice, and teamwork at the administrative level that is more than just advocacy for the faculty’s “interests”. There has been good success with this at the mid-level of administration (for example, I am on the Faculty Assessment Working Group, which could easily have been organized without a member whose primary role at NOLS is in the field). I believe NOLS is making progress in using the experience and knowledge of the faculty in school-wide leadership. I would be happy to hear any feedback and ideas on how the NIA and myself could be more useful to the Board of Trustees in the future.


Thanks again for all your hard work, and for your eagerness to listen. I will be at the meetings in Alaska, which has been my NOLS home for thirteen summers, and is quite a special place. Looking forward to seeing you all there!

Think creatively.

Act collectively.

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The mission of the NIA is to communicate and advocate instructor views and to work within the NOLS community to promote the school's mission and values

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