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From the NIA Board of Directors

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  • Tuesday, November 04, 2014 6:47 PM | Dave Durant (Administrator)

    Are NIA Elections the Only Large Scale Mechanism for Democratic Decision Making at NOLS?

    Most students on field courses receive a class on Decision Making Styles in which four ways groups can make decisions are presented: by direction, consultation, voting, and consensus. Like most of our field curriculum, this class varies based on the instructor, student group, and stage of the expedition. Typically some pros and cons are given for each style, and some examples of when each would be appropriate.

    From what I've seen, many instructors have a preferred style that they depict in a rosy light. I certainly do. Having attended a Quaker school, I had prior experience with consensus. I think our typical caricature of consensus as a quasi-utopian method, ideal if it works, but usually slow and arduous, is an oversimplification. Of course, consensus has some limits. The more people there are in a group, the harder it is to reach a decision. Practiced Quaker Meetings with hundreds of members can routinely reach consensus, but it's unlikely that over a thousand NOLS employees will. Given this, I agree with all the instructors that I've seen teach this class. Any group together long enough will resort to all four styles to optimize performance.

    Decision Making Styles Classes are mostly lecture based, and at some point the white board materializes so that the four styles can be placed on the "buy in" versus "time" chart. This presentation is pretty close to gospel by NOLS standards. It's enshrined in the LEN, which makes its way into the field more often these days as e-readers proliferate, as well as the "Leadership at NOLS" pamphlet, which is itself replicated in many semester journals.

    Given this pride of place, it's fair to ask how well we, as an organization, practice what we teach. Directive decision making abounds. One example is most of the information I-teams receive from their branch. When I arrive to work a course at the RM, I'm handed a route sheet. The length of my course, where we'll get dropped off, re-rationed, and picked up, as well as general areas to camp in each night have all been decided for me.

    This isn't necessarily bad. On the contrary, it's one of the things that I appreciate most about working for NOLS. At the RM Andy Blair has put in time and effort to decide all these things so that I-teams don't have to. We can use the energy Andy has saved us to focus on running the best courses with the highest possible student outcomes. Andy is also always willing to discuss, and even amend, route sheets based on considerations for a specific course. When an instructor initiates this process, the decision has ceased to be entirely directive and is now, to some extent, consultative. This demonstrates admirable flexibility given the size of the RM.

    As a school we are big on consultative decision making. Examples are myriad. The WRAP process is consultative, as is the Moorhead Survey, and the meetings that accompanied the birth of the new Strategic Plan. Consultative decision making can be a wonderful thing. I-teams use it all the time with students. When done skillfully the constituents feel heard. On the other hand, there's an inherent contradiction in the consultative process. An individual can feel that their voice has been drowned out. Our curriculum recognizes this with the division between Consultative I and Consultative II. The larger the group, the more likely we are to slip towards the directive side of consultation.

    In the field or the classroom teams are small. Typically three in the field, two on a WMI course. In this context, my co-workers and I make the vast majority of our decisions by consensus. In the rare cases when we don't, it's typically either because one of us was absent from the scene of the decision: late to arrive at the X, or outside running a scenario; or because one person just isn't as invested in the outcome of that particular decision. I've never had to say to a CL or Lead Instructor, "I'm going along with this decision under duress. Please note my objection in the course log."

    Finally, we have democratic decision making. Our students, mostly the products of democracies themselves, often show a strong predilection for this method, yet we almost never employ it as an organization. True, small sub groups of our community vote, and this is even how some of the most important issues at the school are resolved. For instance, the Board of Trustees (BoT) votes on the annual budget presented to them by the Executive Director Team (EDT). I've been told about an instance where the Branch Directors voted on how to advocate on a specific issue. Yet these aren't examples of democracy, any more than an I-team voting and then handing down their verdict to the student group would be.

    The only broad application of democracy at NOLS that I can think of are the internal elections held by the NIA each fall. This year these will determine the NIA President, who represents the views and interests of instructors to the Board of Trustees, as well as seven of the 12 members of the NIA Board. The NIA Board collectively guides the policies and tactics of the NOLS Instructor Organization.

    Likely this is your one chance to vote rather than be consulted, at NOLS this year. Any instructor who has worked a contract in the last three years is eligible to vote. This is the overwhelming majority of NOLS employees. All you need to do is be a member of the NIA. First year dues are only $5. You can join at nolsinstructorassociation.org. Voting will take place via that website between November 22nd and December 27th.

    To nominate yourself for either President or Board Member, post on our Facebook Group or e-mail a current Board Member. Our e-mails can be found under the Operations tab on NIA website. Nominations will be accepted until voting begins. The current board has only one instructor from the Southern Hemisphere, only one woman, and no WMI-only instructor or instructor with less than 30 field weeks. Help us be more representative of our constituency.

    If you think instructors should be represented with the Board of Trustees, join the NIA. Years ago there was a strike over this very issue. Now we find ourselves having to make the case for instructor representation anew. If you're already a member, recruit your next I-team, or the participants on the next seminar you take. If you care deeply about the future of NOLS, consider running for office.

  • Thursday, September 25, 2014 12:11 PM | Allie Maloney

    This year the Board of Trustees has questioned whether the NIA actually represents the majority of all staff. While we are sensitive to the concerns of our in-town colleagues (many of whom are also instructors), we have never intended to represent all staff. We do believe we accurately represent Instructors, but we are now being invited to sit at the table at only one of the three annual Board of Trustees meetings. While we will continue to submit written reports to all Board meetings and our representation to the Executive Director Team, staffing, and other administrators will remain unchanged, we are very concerned with this decrease in communication and credibility with Trustees.

    As we currently understand it, the plan is for the NIA President to represent staff and sit at the table as usual at one meeting, while another representative will attend the second annual meeting. It is not clear how this representative will be chosen, though for now it will be someone from the Morehead committee. This isn't all bad since the Morehead surveys have invariably validated what the NIA has presented as the staff viewpoint. The personal opinion of this representative, however they are selected, will obviously be important, but if they are advocating for the concerns and strengths identified in the Morehead report they will be very similar to the NIA position. The NIA has chosen to remain a faculty organization rather than become an all-employee Union in order to focus on teaching and curriculum, but we support the concept of better representation for in-town employees. We do not believe that must come at the expense of reduced faculty representation.

    The third annual Board meeting is held in Lander in October, and apparently the ideas is that no specific staff representative is needed since many staff are in town and able to attend. We have encouraged maximum staff participation at all Board meetings, but now it is especially important for instructors and staff to attend in order to keep our representation strong. This year's meeting is on Oct. 10 and 11, and there will be an NIA sponsored all-staff party on the evening of the 10th. We'll post more of the schedule separately.

    The NIA goal going forward is to avoid turning this unfortunate situation into a confrontation. It's worth remembering that the goal of all parties here is to support NOLS. What we need to do is to demonstrate to the Trustees that the NIA does in fact represent the vast majority of faculty, and that means boosting our membership numbers.

    This isn't just about us. The NIA has been essential to the survival of NOLS in the past and we believe that strong representation of the faculty viewpoint and field experience remains crucial to the heart and soul of the school. If you are a current member you already understand this. You can encourage others to join and take part in our discussions. If you log in to our website, nolsinstructorassociation.org, you can see who current members are under Members/Directory.

    The NIA is the independent way Instructors can represent ourselves at NOLS. To do so we need your participation and membership, now more than ever. Let's have a good turnout for the Board meeting, and do wear your flamingo logo with pride. With a little luck the annual flamingo migration will arrive in Lander October 10 and paint the town pink. See you there.

  • Monday, August 18, 2014 11:52 AM | Allie Maloney

    N.B.: Students at many branches are asked to fill out electronic Course Quality Surveys once they've returned to the Branch.  At the RM, starting in the summer of 2014, students were asked to give their instructors a letter grade.  This happens after students have been given their own grade for the section, thus undercutting the traditional eval exchange.  These grades are tracked by Program Staff, and it is not clear, or at least not widely known, how they are being used. 

    Questions are asked based on a seven level scale: strongly disagree, disagree, somewhat disagree, neutral, somewhat agree, agree, strongly agree.

    Program Quality Factors

    • Safety was a high priority on this course.
    • My point of view and life experiences were appreciated by others on my course.
    • The NOLS education model was engaging, not boring.
    • I had ample opportunities to reflect on what I was learning during this course.
    • I received a lot of useful feedback from my instructors during this course.
    • I received a lot of useful feedback from my fellow students on this course.
    • There were role models on my course who I respected and admired.
    • I contributed to my group's successes.
    • I had important responsibilities on this course.
    • I made important decisions on this course.
    • Our group worked well together even when instructors were absent.
    • I got along well with everyone on this course.
    Program Variables

    • I am please with the pre-course services (mailings, emails, phone calls) I received from NOLS.
    • The course's terrain was suitably challenging and had good opportunities for course activities.
    • Tell us about your rations:
      • Our rations were high in quality and ample in quantity.
      • My instructors taught and coached backcountry nutrition and energy expenditure.
    • The equipment available met my needs.
    • The in-town meals from the kitchen were great.
    • Travel to and from the field from the transportation department was safe and efficient.
    • Tell us about your instructor team
      • At least one of my instructors showed a genuine interest in me as a person.
      • My instructors worked well as a team.
      • Please comment: I think I will use lessons from my NOLS education in my life from here forward.
    Comments for NOLS

    • What was most rewarding about this course?
    • What one thing would you suggest we change at NOLS to improve our courses?
    • What were the top factors that led you to choose your specific NOLS course?
    • How likely is it that you would recommend NOLS to a friend or colleague?
    • How many instructors did you have?
    • Please list the CL's first and last name.
      • This instructor taught excellent formal and informal lessons.
      • This instructor provided effective one-on-one coaching and feedback.
      • This instructor was invested in my personal success.
      • Considering your overall assessment of the CL, please select a grade for his/her performance on this course (ABCDF)
    • List the first and last name of another instructor, alphabetical order by first names.
      • This instructor taught excellent formal and informal lessons.
      • This instructor provided effective one-on-one coaching and feedback.
      • This instructor was invested in my personal success.
      • Considering your overall assessment of the CL, please select a grade for his/her performance on this course (ABCDF)

  • Monday, June 30, 2014 4:46 AM | Dave Durant (Administrator)

    It's official! Proctors will once again be paid at Instructor level for one section on which they have not been "assessed" to teach the primary skill set. The NIA has been advocating for this for six years. Huge thanks to the Branch Director team, the Staffing office, and others who supported this decision in the budget process. Thanks is also due to the Trustees, who approved the final budget.

    NOLS has had Proctors on many semesters since we've had a semester program. In 2008, in response to the economic crisis and enrollment drop, NOLS cut Proctor pay for those non-assessed sections to a nominal level ($50/week). Instructors and the NIA objected, maintaining that proctors work full time with the students on the many parts of a NOLS curriculum besides the primary skill set for the section. We did not prevail. Some argued that it was an unnecessary expense; the NIA countered that it would be better to simply not have proctors if we couldn't afford them. Others argued that the underpaid proctor was a valuable training position. Versions of the current solution almost made it through the budgeting process on a couple of occasions and the RM temporarily discontinued proctors in order to better share scarce contracts. The Field Staffing Office worked hard to find proctors who could teach all sections to reduce the amount of underpaid sections, and in some instances instructors were told they were free to sit out the section.

    Through all this instructors consistently told us that the proctor situation was unfair and needed to be changed. The NIA worked behind the scenes, and while respecting other viewpoints, we were persistent about keeping the issue on the table as a significant staff concern.

    Today we can say that our efforts since 2008 have paid off. The new system is not perfect. It only applies to one section per semester.  The NIA position remains that proctors should be paid at least I-level wages for every section. That said, due to intentional staffing, it is now rare for a proctor to not be assessed to teach the primary skill set on more than one section. Given the time and effort it has taken to get to this point, the NIA considers the issue to be acceptably resolved for the time being. This will allow us to focus our efforts on other projects, including aspects of compensation such as travel reimbursement and international pay scales. We hope that once this new proctor system has run for a year or two and things have calmed down it will be possible to cover those few remaining sections and change the policy to one that would be simpler, more comprehensive, and truly equitable.

    Proctor pay is a good example of how the NIA works for instructors. As Instructors rather than administrators we don't have the authority to make changes ourselves, but by working with the Administration we can consistently and vigorously represent the Instructor viewpoint on complex issues.  Time and again this approach has resulted in positive changes at the school.

    Change doesn't always take years. Here's another current example: At the May NIA meeting in Lander one of the concerns raised was qualified IC graduates not being offered work that summer and then moving on to other jobs. Trying to balance IC offerings with future instructor demand has always been challenging but we passed along the message. In this case staffing was able to respond. Marco informed me that this year they were able to offer work to 100% of qualified and available IC graduates. Congratulations on a job well done. I know it cannot have been easy to accomplish this and still have enough contracts for existing staff. No doubt improving enrollment helped, but I am still amazed and appreciative. Way to go staffing!

    At the recent Alaska NIA meeting someone asked “If NOLS is the kind of great organization that lives by its values and cares for its faculty and staff, is it necessary to have a separate organization to advocate for faculty?"  The examples above help to answer this question. Different positions and responsibilities at the school lead to differing viewpoints. We believe that the faculty viewpoint is one of the most important, and that any school is stronger and more responsive for having an active and independent faculty organization to support its mission. The NIA provides a way for faculty to have a voice in administration, even when you are in the field.

  • Monday, May 19, 2014 10:15 AM | Allie Maloney
    A few important things that came out of the meeting were a sense of what the NIA is, and a list of big ideas and dreams, or, cool stuff that people want. This list of big dreams was AWESOME and includes tons of things that WE SHOULD BE DOING, NOW. And... in case anyone is still wondering, the NIA is made up of dues-paying members, and of a Board. The Board is composed of 12 active, many full-time, field instructors who are not paid for our NIA work and do it in our spare time when we're not busying enjoying life outside of the field. Lately we've been pretty much crushing, if I don't say so myself, and we're pretty happy about it. Now we're focused on writing up a formal NIA platform, to describe the big things we're working on, to be posted on the website, as well as on the Branch Rep program (look for a meeting or two at a branch near you each season). We're also working on keeping up the momentum with the website and membership, possibly taking over NOLS Talking, and on working through the idea of full membership for WMI instructors and associate membership for NOLS employees who are not faculty (look for discussion at branch meetings and on the website and a vote to change the Constitution by late August).

    Honestly that's about all we can handle at the moment as a Board... so we need other active members to take up the Big and Small Dreams that were tossed out at the meeting. Better rations, better sustainability, lighter packs, supporting scholarship students with used gear, throwing a huge party, more newsletter articles, vanpools to Denver and Salt Lake, guaranteed work for IC grads, more predictable contract dates, more stable p-sups, more cold hard cash... basically the meeting was like a Bumper Bar: Full of Good Stuff. Not all do-able by next week or traditionally part of the NIA's work, but we exist partly to hold a space for ideas and funnel them in the right direction.
    So the space has been held... now go forth and make things happen! I challenge everyone who has read this far in this post to make one move towards one of these ideas, or any other idea to make NOLS a better place that needs action as well as talk, before you go in the field next. Get out there and get after it! The NIA supports you.
  • Saturday, May 03, 2014 11:18 AM | Allie Maloney
    It has been pointed out to me that my post is a little confusing. The Morehead Survey itself did not ask any questions about the NIA, and they do not make recommendations. The survey identifies areas of strength and concern, and then a staff committee goes over the results and they make recommendations. In this case the committee was divided into two groups, intown and field staff, and the recommendation to reevaluate the role of the NIA came from the field staff group.

    I apologize for any confusion, but the bottom line is that the recommendation raises reasonable questions and we ought to respond. We are eager to hear more about this from our members and also directly from intown staff.
  • Friday, May 02, 2014 12:50 PM | Allie Maloney
    The Morehead Survey results are out and have been sent around by e-mail; they are also available on Rendezvous under HR/surveys.

    The NIA encouraged everyone to participate in the survey. Typically it identifies the same concerns we've been talking about, but since it's "scientific" and costs money it validates what we've been saying. For example, this time it shows that staff satisfaction with comp has improved a bit since last time (when it was the lowest ever recorded by Morehead), but lo and behold, it is still a significant concern.

    Given all that I was a bit taken aback to find this recommendation at the end of the report: "Consider the role of the NIA as full staff representation, given the low membership and lack of representation for in-town and WMI staff."

    My initial reaction was that despite our efforts we were unable to find an NIA representative to participate in the review committee, so this is what happens. On reflection though, it's all true. The NIA has always been a faculty organization; we have never presented ourselves as an all-employee union, and only current faculty are able to vote. Our paid membership numbers are low and even current WMI faculty are only eligible for Associate membership.

    Much of this will be addressed at our upcoming annual meeting (7pm monday in the Noble if you've missed the posters) and during the Summit. I have been confident that we do represent the vast majority of faculty, but we have done a poor job collecting dues and pushing the membership issue. That is changing, especially now that we can automate much of the process. A topic for the meeting will be whether we should change our constitution to open eligibility to all NOLS faculty including WMI and to open up the Associate Member position.

    So far I do not anticipate that the NIA will convert to an all employee union, but these decisions are made by our voting members so that too is possible. While it's true that our membership is faculty, it has been clear that in-town pay scales below the Branch Director level are a serious concern for our members, and so we have been pushing that to the admin and Trustees, and this has not been unnoticed. During our efforts to get comp addressed in the previous strategic plan an awful lot of flamingoes appeared on desks in the office, and the resulting comp increase was across the board.

    I think we do a good job of representing all staff under the circumstances. Our meeting is open to the entire NOLS community and we hope to get comments and suggestions from non-members on how we could do better. With all that said, though, I personally would welcome the formation of an all employee union to fight for better wages if that's what's desired. I think the important role of the NIA is to represent the faculty viewpoint on curriculum, education, and instructor career/lifestyle issues to the administration and Trustees, and to facilitate communication in general among different communities of the school. That would not change. The comp piece has certainly been a concern, so it has been an agenda item for us and we've had some success so I guess some people think that's all we do. It's not my favorite topic, but somebody has to do it. We are open to feedback from the NOLS community.

    It has been pointed out to me that my post is a little confusing. The Morehead Survey itself did not ask any questions about the NIA, and they do not make recommendations. The survey identifies areas of strength and concern, and then a staff committee goes over the results and they make recommendations. In this case the committee was divided into two groups, intown and field staff, and the recommendation to reevaluate the role of the NIA came from the field staff group.

    I apologize for any confusion, but the bottom line is that the recommendation raises reasonable questions and we ought to respond. We are eager to hear more about this from our members and also directly from intown staff.
  • 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!
  • Saturday, April 12, 2014 10:40 AM | Allie Maloney
    Intentional hierarchy, lateral leadership, and the union of theory and practice at NOLS
    by Sean Williams

    My question in this article is, who is actually in charge around here? What does being ‘in charge’ mean at NOLS as an organization? Do we practice the same kind of leadership and organization in town as we do in the field? As an instructor, what I want to imagine is this: what would it mean to be an instructor-driven school? Is this what we are already? Is this what we want to be? Fair warning to the faint-of-heart: this article is meant to be very positive, and very provocative. I want us to dream big, about leadership and about our school. I want us to take ourselves seriously.

    At NOLS we claim to be leaders, not just in wilderness skills, but also in education and in leadership itself. I don’t think this is entirely because of the 4-7-1 or the LEN, as helpful as they may be, but because of instructors’ and staff’s experience with and genuine commitment to communication, and to our real belief in other people and in the importance of what we do. I’m pretty sure that our ability to structure, role model, and debrief student leadership in the field is well ahead of the curve in the culture at large. I almost always find that students’ expectations of ‘leadership’ are often quite one dimensional, entirely focused on the executive role, directive decision-making, and lonely responsibility. I believe that students’ leadership learning is much more holistic and goes farther and deeper than these expectations. It involves peer leadership, working as a group toward a goal, accountability, and trust. Leadership in the field is more rewarding, and usually higher performing, when there is real inclusivity, when leadership comes from all quarters, rather than primarily from the course leader or the leader of the day. 
    If I can structure a course and set the tone for communication in a way that helps students understand that leadership is much more than being directive and in charge, I consider that aspect of the course to be really successful. By successful, I mean possibly life-changing for the students, and perhaps, in a small way, game-changing for society at large.

    With that in mind, I’d like to share a few thoughts about both the formal structures and informal attitudes regarding leadership within NOLS as an organization. Ideally, the structure and practice of leadership within the school ought to reflect, and even be primarily based on, our shared high level of experience and understanding about leadership as it is practiced in the field, within instructor teams and student groups. We think of ourselves as being on the cutting edge of leadership in what we teach and in how we run courses. To maintain our organizational integrity, we ought to be on the same cutting edge in town. I’m looking for a union of theory and practice between the quality of what we do in the field and how we organize ourselves throughout the school. My suggestion here is that in the field, the lateral leadership, from what we often, but inadequately, call ‘active followers’, is as important, and less recognized by students, than the more traditional, hierarchical leadership from the ‘leader.’ So what about in town?

    I’ve been thinking about this for a while, for over two years since the idea first occurred to me. I’ve been observing how decisions get made, who’s involved, and, equally importantly, who feels involved. I think, at this point, that it’s a mixed bag, a somewhat confused combination of hierarchical models that are tried and true, and lateral practices that are hit-or-miss. A formal hierarchy, and informal practices about how to negotiate it, is a great strength in the field, and probably in town as well. We certainly share a belief that anyone at the school can have good ideas, and those in charge, from course leaders to the EDT, seem to try hard to solicit those ideas and to put them into practice. The goal of soliciting feedback and suggestions from those lower in the formal hierarchy is common, and taken seriously, I think. I’ve come to suspect, though, that in town, our hierarchy is more rigid, and our lateral leadership somewhat less functional and also less integrated, than they are in the field.

    So what’s the deal with hierarchy at NOLS? Why do we have it? To my mind, hierarchy comes from ultimate responsibility. If someone’s at the top, they are finally responsible for everything: the buck stops here, as any course leader, parent, or national president knows. But at least at NOLS, and perhaps elsewhere, it’s not that simple. With all due respect to the Executive Director and the Board of Trustees, it’s not so clear where the top actually is.

    My theory is, at NOLS, there are two “tops.” There’s a Big Picture top, and there’s a Direct Work top. The Big Picture starts at the Board, who carry a very long-term vision, and moves through the EDT, headquarters in Lander, to each branch, which organizes and sets up their operations so that instructors can run courses successfully. Meanwhile, the Direct Work top comes from exactly that – the direct work, in the field with students, of running good courses. That, as people often say, is ultimately why NOLS is here. That’s what the whole show is for. Those in the best position to evaluate, change, direct, or, in a word, to lead this Direct Work, are instructors. We instructors are the ones directly carrying out the ultimate point of what NOLS does, with the absolutely essential support of the whole branch and HQ system.

    Inevitably, we instructors, focused on our detailed Small Pictures in each course, lack the big perspective and the knowledge of myriad operational details to directly lead the Big Picture. In an abstract sense, that’s why we need in-town and HQ staff. Equally inevitably, those not working in the field lack the constant feedback from how things play out on the ground, and the constant reminders of true priorities, which we instructors are closely tuned in to. This is why the large amount of crossover between field, in-town, and HQ faculty and staff is a huge strength. From the perspective of the priority of the Direct Work, instructor teams are “the top” of a hierarchy based on responsibility for what happens where the NOLS mission is carried out: in the field. From a Big Picture perspective, the Board and the EDT are ‘the top,’ responsible for leading the long-term vision and the whole international operation. I don’t really believe it makes sense to prioritize one ‘top’ over the other. In the end they’re both needed, and because it’s impossible to decide which is more important, I think we have to treat them as equally important.

    I imagine, in fact I hope, that most people at NOLS would agree with this, at least in the abstract. I don’t think that the way we talk about responsibility, or organize supervision and decision-making, quite reflects it. While our teaching and practice in the field is quite lateral, flexible, and includes a highly intentional and carefully negotiated use of hierarchy between instructors and among students, our organizational structure as a whole seems to me to be heavily hierarchical, basically the same as the common corporate or business structures in the United States as far as I understand it. It includes regular attempts to solicit ideas from those lower in the hierarchy, but few cases of integrating those same people directly into decision-making, which is very different from just asking for ideas. Instructors are supervised, evaluated, given lists of expectations to meet, much like employees in a traditional corporate or industrial structure, who accomplish set tasks in exchange for an hourly or monthly wage. 

    Increasingly, instructors are provided with pre-determined ways to manage courses and teach curriculum. Given our contract-by-contract work system and fluctuating admissions problems, we instructors are highly vulnerable in terms of job security, and thus structurally disinclined to rock the boat or push for changes. In general the same is true of branch staff, up to a certain level in the hierarchy. We almost always describe ourselves as “working for NOLS.” This is true in the sense that NOLS writes our paychecks, but from the perspective of the Direct Work, in which instructors are ultimately responsible for the courses we run, all of the apparatus of NOLS branches and Headquarters in fact works for us.

    So I’d like to imagine how NOLS might be organized if this dual perspective of leadership and responsibility were integrated into our structure. First off, any sharing of responsibility requires both parties to make big steps in genuinely understanding and valuing the others’ perspective. We instructors, as a group, could make big improvements in our understanding of the operational and financial details, constraints, and opportunities that make our courses possible. If we are essentially employees, then all this is above our pay grade, as we sometimes joke. But if all this actually works for us, and if we are ultimately responsible for how it plays out on our courses, we’d better have a good grasp of it, even if we’ve never worked in town – just like we expect anyone working in town or at headquarters who has never worked in the field to grasp the details and importance of what we do there. The transient, contract-by-contract, often unreliable nature of a NOLS career also does not support the mental and emotional investment required to take a (possibly unpaid) decision-making role beyond one’s contract dates. All this could change, if we wanted it to; all this could change if we decided to change the structure, and language, of leadership.

    Those higher up in the hierarchy, who, to speak plainly, hold more power in many ways, would have to willingly change decision-making structures to integrate others. What if every committee discussing curriculum, long-term branch or school planning, risk management, or pay and benefits were composed of, say, 50% full- or part-time field instructors, paid their CL wage for an 8 hours workday? Why not? I would say it should also be genuinely valuable to look to those with little NOLS experience, to brand-new instructors, issue room assistants, and garden interns, and to expect that real leadership should come from anywhere at any time. After all, we certainly do this with our students and within our instructor teams, and we are regularly surprised by what comes from unusual sources.

    None of this is revolutionary or unheard of. In the US, academic departments at universities are entirely self-organized and run, with virtually no oversight by university administration, who merely provide the infrastructure and logistics for education to happen. The professors I worked with as an undergrad and graduate student would not have tolerated being supervised as employees. A common corporate structure for large German corporations includes an equal and relatively convivial and supportive sharing of power and decision-making between stockholders, executives, and employee unions, quite different from the combative struggles over pay and benefits that unions lead in the US. On the face of it, there’s no reason why a supervisory and decision-making structure derived from for-profit US businesses should be used at a non-profit wilderness education school, especially one which is at the top of the field in teaching and understanding leadership.

    The goal of the instructor-driven school that I’m thinking about would be to affirm and deepen the equal, non-hierarchical interrelationship between instructors who carry out and oversee the direct, on-the-ground, personal work of our mission with students, and administrators who oversee the bigger picture and carry out logistical, operational, and financial tasks to support the direct work. How might faculty and branch staff be motivated and invited to participate in planning and decision-making at the branch and HQ level, beyond just providing suggestions or feedback? Could this approach be more of a reflection of the kind of leadership we teach and practice in the field, with students and in high-functioning I-teams? I don’t know, and I’m just writing this as an instructor who’s willing to think big: about NOLS, about leadership, about how this whole show operates. I’d love to hear any reactions or continuing thoughts on this, from anyone.
  • Friday, April 11, 2014 5:04 PM | Allie Maloney

    May 2005

    Sense and Sustainability

    Toby Harper, NIA President

    The mission of the NIA is to communicate and advocate instructor views,

    working within the NOLS community to promote the school s mission and values.

    After a hot ski course in the Tetons, and a semester rock camp in Sin City without a rain day, now I find snow in Lander!  Since the last newsletter I’ve been in the field a little, figuring that by being an instructor I can probably better lead on instructor views.  I now plan to spend the month catching up with NIA business in preparation for the June Board of Trustees meetings.  For those of you who haven’t checked out the report from February’s meetings, it’s on Rendezvous, along with the last newsletter.  For NIA members my articles are also in the Files section of the Yahoo site, along with various other documents.

    Whenever I’m in Lander I am impressed with the high quality energy of the goings on at HQ.  This latest visit was no different, sitting in on the Program Supervisors meetings the last week of March, and participating in a great meeting with John Gookin and the U. of Utah folks about the Outcomes study, I was reminded that NOLS functions in large part on the hard work of exceptional individuals. The meetings I had recently with Linda Lindsey and Pete Absolon re. the SRDR and Human Resources, and with Deborah Nunnink re. the Directors meetings and budget process are examples of high quality, high-energy interaction between the NIA and administrators.  My thanks to these folks, and others, who have demonstrated their investment in Field Instructors by spending time with me in person, on the phone and over email.

    Reasonable and Sustainable

    I spent the first quarter of my term as NIA president building relationships with the various audiences with whom I am to communicate, and outlining my goals for the year, what I understand to be the primary concerns of NIA members.  The theme for me this quarter is to break the concept of Compensation, as the staff survey did, into Pay and Benefits, and emphasize the latter specifically with regard to health insurance reimbursements.  In the survey results faculty placed “my needs are satisfied by the benefits I receive” as the number one “high importance/low performance” issue.  The SRDR has interpreted these data and come up with some recommendations. These are now on the table as these months (April-May) are budget-building time at the NOLS.

    Health Insurance Reimbursement, how it works.

    The current health insurance reimbursement program for NOLS Field Instructors, unless you’re on AFP, essentially works like this:

    ∑ If you have less than 150 field weeks for NOLS you have to work 15 weeks in a year to be reimbursed 3% per week you work for the health insurance costs you submit to Barb Worley that year.  If you have over 150 weeks for NOLS you’ll be reimbursed 3% per week even in you work fewer than 15 weeks.  Thus, for a simple example, I have fewer than 150 weeks, I submit my insurance receipt to Barb, my plan cost $1500, if I work 17 weeks this year I should be reimbursed 17 x 3%, or 0.51 of 1500, or $765).

    Last year, and again this month, the SRDR recommended a change to this program, to increase the health insurance reimbursement from 3% to 4% per week (at an expected cost of $18,000). From a Field Instructor perspective this change is important:

    ∑ because increased benefits are what we have consistently asked for,

    ∑ because, in my example above, I would get 255 additional untaxed dollars back at the end of the year, and

    ∑ because health insurance reimbursement at 4% per week helps to define 25 weeks per year as a “reasonable and sustainable” amount of work, something we’ve been saying for a long time (25 weeks at 4% would be 100% reimbursement).  This would be an important step at NOLS, as the “leading source and teacher of wilderness skills”, in showing a commitment to outdoor education as a professional career.

    Budget Process

    I recently spoke with Deborah Nunnink to find out how the Branch Directors meetings went, and how the budget process is going.  I am continually impressed with her communication skills, she explained the process, which is complex, in a way that I understand better and can relate to instructors (please see her newsletter articles, raise a question on the NIA Yahoo site, or contact me if you want some part of the process explained specifically).

    I was disappointed to hear that the directors, while attempting to incorporate the SRDR recommendations, at the time I’m writing this, are falling short of budget targets.  When asked what the SRDR would sacrifice first in budget cuts the committee chose the health reimbursement change explained above.  My understanding is that the SRDR recommended this with the hope of protecting their number one recommendation, another year of 4.65% payroll budget increase.

    Because both issues continue to be so important for faculty, I emphasized to Deborah that presenting a budget which includes the SRDR recommendations for payroll (approximately $450,000) and benefits ($18,000) is what Field Instructors expect based on the staff survey results.  The number one driver of employee commitment according to the Morehead study was “Information from this survey will get used to make improvements”.

    The cost of increasing health insurance reimbursement is small compared to the huge benefit of re-defining what is reasonable and sustainable for outdoor educators.  Looking forward to the summer, and reflecting on past courses, I think its crucial for Field Instructors and administrators to contemplate how a “reasonable and sustainable” workload directly supports the school’s mission by creating great program quality and student outcomes.


    Topping the list of issues internal to the NIA I am working on this year is membership.  Thanks very much to all our members; your support gives lungs to the NIA voice.  The last number I heard from Pete for the size of the Field Instructor pool was 504, more than half of these are NIA members!  If you’re a member and can’t get onto the Yahoo site to share your views, please contact me to figure it out; our mission is to communicate, let’s use the communication tools available to us.  For those Field Instructors who are not members, please join us, or let me know why you’ve chosen not to so we can consider changing to meet your needs.  Joining before the 6th of June will definitely strengthen my message at the Board of Trustees meeting.


    While attending the Program Supervisor meetings, at least the staffing bits, I was reminded of how important the Psup/Staffing Coordinator level is to Field Instructors.  While the NIA exists to communicate between instructors and administrators, the Psups and Staffing folks are the level at which much of this filtering is done in NOLS’ administrative structure.  These folks have challenging jobs, please remember to thank them.

    Other things I learned about at those meetings, which are likely outlined in this newsletter, include:

    ∑ some significant changes to the Dreamsheet process,

    ∑ a pay bump for hard-to-staff WRW and Adventure CLs during the busy part of the summer, and

    ∑ a great new staffing appication called STARZ that I feel will improve Field Instructor’s professional development.

    Pete Absolon has been extremely helpful and I feel very successful at making pro-instructor changes as Associate Director of Human Resources. I’d like to point out recent examples of successes in the relationship between the NIA and HR; two quick ones come to mind:

    ∑ HR recently asked the NIA what instructors would think about our new title “NOLS Field Instructor”.  I asked various folks and went ahead and said that was fine, it was an informal check, on a relatively small issue, yet one which again demonstrated that the NIA is a respected place to dip into the instructor pool.

    ∑ From an instructor perspective a 4.65% increase in budgetary allocation for payroll isn’t the same as a “pay raise” because, for various reasons, nobody really sees their paycheck go up by 4.65%.  I feel the wording of Pete’s Benefits article in the February newsletter is much clearer than the explanations that went out with the 2005 pay matrix about budgetary allocation for pay versus pay raise.  These changes, I believe, are due in part to NIA feedback.

    Current Issues

    I’ve received feedback that a hot topics section in my communications is helpful to instructors.  For those who have not been on the Yahoo site lately, here are some recently discussed issues:

    ∑ “Merit-pay” created a remarkable amount of discussion.  When asked for a position on the current Merit Pay system by HR I conducted some very unscientific research, polling Field Instructors who both had and had not received it in the past.  The NIA has since released a statement that we support the selection process outlined in Abby’s November newsletter article, and that we propose emphasizing the personal letters of thanks and getting rid of the $100 checks, as long as we can participate in deciding where this money goes... Some options for this money include increasing the budget of various benefit programs, or spreading it out, symbolically, across the pay matrix.  What do you think?

    ∑ It looks like the Noble renovation project is going ahead starting in September.  On my to-do list is discussing instructor resources in the new facility with John Stoddard and Dave Glenn.  Field Instructors, how would computers and storage space best work for you?  What else?

    ∑ I recently participated in an Outcomes research meeting to develop a survey that will help determine how course factors affect student outcomes.  I emphasized that the seniority, as well as the gender mix, of the I-team would be important variables to look at.  I believe that these studies are crucial to both improving program quality and to professionalizing the faculty.  I know it is more paperwork at the end of a course, yet I encourage you all to put energy into them, and to be honest; the purpose of these studies is academic, not to evaluate your performance.

    ∑ Various international issues are being discussed as NOLS continues to grow around the globe.  These issues include the new $100 Homeland Security fees for foreign instructors working in the US, as well as the differential pay scales being developed for foreign instructors working in their home countries.  What do you feel NOLS’ strategy should be when operating in countries with different politico-economic conditions?

    ∑ Comparables are an ongoing topic, now particularly related to the goal of retaining senior Field Instructors.  Which organizations are people leaving NOLS to go work at?  Why? (Is this what next year’s survey process should ask?)

    Ups and Comings

    As initiated by Rick Rochelle I’ll be encouraging NIA board members to lead on giving to the NOLS Annual Fund; remember that participation (rather than how much you give) is most important.  With a busy summer coming up I’d like to thank the folks who have volunteered to represent the NIA at their NOLS Locations (formerly know as Branches), including Ashley Wise in Vernal, Pat Mettenbrink in Tucson, and Brendan Madden in Whitehorse.  My thanks to Matt Lloyd for doing so much work as NIA Treasurer, and for participating in meetings while I’ve been away.  Thanks as well to Les van Barselaar, the NIA Vice President, who ran information sessions in Mexico this winter, and will be working for the NIA in Lander this summer.  I plan to have similar sessions in the Yukon and Pacific Northwest in the next few months; if you’ll be in Whitehorse the evening of June 12th, or Conway around the 26th of July, please let me know.  If you’re interested in doing something NIA-related at your location this summer please contact me as well.

    I would like to reinforce that the above article is a combination of my own goals, and of both formal and informal discussions within the NIA.  As president my role is to be a voice for the NIA board, which should be a distillation of the voices of the NIA membership, which I hope to be representative of the wider NOLS Field Instructor population.  I thank all those who are already NIA members, and encourage everyone who has not joined to do so and to actively participate.  I’m especially interested in hearing ways in which the NIA may not represent your views.  

    Toby Harper

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