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Response to "The Instructor-Driven School" by Dave Schimelpfenig

Saturday, April 12, 2014 10:52 AM | Allie Maloney
by Dave Schimelpfenig

I found Sean’s article intriguing the first time I read it, and it is still simmering in my gray matter after several revisits. It paints the picture for a potentially different path for the school, one that would build an organizational structure that we could promote alongside our excellent end product. I don’t think it would drastically change the direction of the school, our leadership generally comes from our field staff, and those that stick around are as dedicated to our mission as the newly minted instructor who is just realizing the power of what we offer. I do think it could change the relationship between faculty and the greater administration. We could leave behind the ‘us and them’ and replace it with a ‘we’ and be proud of a school that is leading by example.

But, just as this thought process is expanding and soon to overwhelm my cerebral cortex, I ask myself what is the point? Articles in the newsletter are written, published, then . . . what? I think I remember an article by Nate Steele a few years back that had a similar theme, that has since been lost in the ether. This article was presented here on the NIA forum and has ‘6’ likes. (I’ll add my ‘like’ now, though it does stretch personal my non-active Facebook ethic a little) But what next? Where does it go from here? Are there 6 likes and 500 dislikes? Do we have a silent majority? Do we have time and energy to discuss this sort of topic around yet another round of uber-dense hippie cakes that were presented as ‘breakfast’ (“Yep – I used the pancake mix, but I added oats, and maseca, and some nuts, and dried fruit. . ! ! yum, yum, keep you going until dinner time!)? Does it show up as an endnote on program evaluations, or in whispers in official instructor hang-out zones? Where are we empowered to create the change that we think will improve this organization?

After spending 1 season as an administrator I have realized a vast change in my view of the NOLS machine. I’ve seen a glimpse of the ‘big picture’ and have more empathy for the decisions of the administration that can be confounding to instructors. I still may or may not agree, and I still may or may not be ‘empowered’ to influence the big picture, but I am one step closer to the inner workings and have built more of the empathy and understanding the author calls for in the faculty.

For now, our strongest representation and chance for meaningful organization is from the NIA. Our struggle is often engaged one issue at a time, that which is most affecting our lives at any given time. If it is not bad enough, we won’t have the NIA enrollment, program feedback, coordination, and determination to give our NIA representatives the clout to act on our behalf. In this pattern, we’ll always be fighting for the next scrap that the administration will toss our way, and they’ll only do it if we are good and riled up. Seeking change as laid out by the author would immerse the faculty in the school, and with proper structure, actually give the faculty the power to partake in decision making at every level, but also the responsibility to consider the broader reality and impact of decisions on the school. The current decision making style feels mostly directive with some occasional consultation and I feel the resulting lack of ‘buy in’ that can result from over-use of this decision making style.

It is easy to clamor for higher paychecks and travel reimbursement, better tents, books, kayaks, food, and students, when we don’t have the responsibility to market for the students or settle the accounts at the end of the day. NOLS might make the same or different choices with instructors at the table making decisions, but whatever happens, WE would be a part of the decision making process, and WE would have contributed and considered the consequences. The way it is now ‘they’ make decisions and ‘instructors’ face the consequences.
I, for one, would be interested in a response to this article from a member of the EDT. I’d be interested in how much support there is for this idea among the faculty and what direction we could give our NIA representatives?
Some early questions I’d have for us, and them, would be: Why not have formal, paid, faculty representation on every ‘significant’ decision making apparatus at the school? What are the ‘significant decisions’ that the school makes?

It seems like this could be incorporated with a greater commitment to salaried faculty positions – with representation on decision making committees being drawn from a greater pool of staff who will bridge the gap between staff / faculty. These positions could also be drawn from AFP positions – where AFP instructors are ‘hired’ for an additional month to represent instructors in the HQ decision-making structure. We’d have someone (or two?) at board meetings, another instructor in the EDT, and brand director meetings . . . Perhaps we could give these people cool hats with flamingo’s to show the world that they are speaking for NOLS instructors!

In the end, nothing will change if the article is written and forgotten. If we want change, let us tell our NIA representatives, our program supervisors, our EDT, and our board.
This could be our manifesto, but where will the ideas held within be discussed, deliberated, supported, modified, refuted? And will anyone listen? Or do we really just care about receiving a few more dollars in travel compensation?

Dave Schimelpfenig
Viva SIC 7/7/03!
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