Summers Eatmon, Secretary, NOLS Instructor Association
The past few months have been record breaking not only for NOLS as a whole but also for the NOLS Instructor Association (NIA). As of September 14th we stand strong with 350 members, including 35 lifetime members. We upgraded our online payment system over the summer. Sixty-two supporters are now enrolled to have their membership and dues renewed automatically each year. We will also be holding our first membership drive at the Wilderness Medicine Institute (WMI) Staff Meeting this September 17-18th. NIA Board Members and WMI Instructors, Tim Dorsey and Dave Durant, together with Allie Maloney the NIA Visibility Director will be attending the event and educating WMI instructors on the mission of the NIA.
Branch meetings were conducted at nearly every location that operated during the Boreal Summer months. The total number of people who attended NIA branch meetings exceeded 220 this fiscal year. The process for branch representatives has been streamlined by creating a standardized system for recording notes. These notes are then distributed via the NIA website. Instructors and staff have reported utilizing this resource to learn about our meeting discussions and the rest of the NOLS community. Recently administrative and in-town staff have been participating in the dialog at many meetings. These interactions are a benefit to instructors whose questions can be answered promptly and it allows faculty and staff to hear about school issues from the other side of the desk.
The NIA has been focusing the majority of our efforts this past year on what we are calling “The Big Three of 2015.” Travel reimbursements, mentorship and faculty engagement in decision-making. These topics are consistent themes of concern within the instructor pool.
We are gathering information from both faculty and staff to increase knowledge of the legalities of travel reimbursements. We also want to have a better understanding of how travel compensation affects instructors. We know that instructors often have to make major decisions about when and where they work for NOLS. Sometimes these decisions are based off the costs of traveling to work. The NIA wants to encourage NOLS to look into developing an electronic travel reimbursement system. This could reduce stress upon staff and instructors and decrease delayed payments. I was asked by the NOLS Pro Finance Manager to collaborate and help streamline the NOLS Pro Travel Expense Journal system. Changes made help to clarify the forms and expectations for faculty wishing to receive travel reimbursement for NOLS Pro contracts.
The NIA Mentorship Program was officially launched in May. Anyone can view and contact the available mentors at nolsinstructorassociation.org. A representative from the staffing office informed Instructor Course graduates this year about the mentorship program. The spectrum of expertise of mentors spans from senior instructors and branch staff to people who have found success working outside of NOLS while still remaining a part-time instructor. The program is run on a volunteer basis to offer guidance not just for new instructors but also for people looking to move in other directions at the school or for help incorporating new career paths into their lives as a NOLS instructor.
Staffing Director Marco Johnson invited the NIA to assemble a panel of ten instructors, member or non-members, to discuss the Morehead Survey on May 20th. Ten instructors were able to partake in the discussion of three main agenda items that did not overlap directly with any other Morehead Committees. Instructor job security, faculty representation and engagement in school wide decision-making, and the travel plan were considered.
Job security is a concern that seems to have no easy answers. Most instructors have to wait multiple years before receiving enough NOLS work to support themselves year-round. The discrepancy of need varies year round, the peak this summer was about 348 people in the field on a single day versus the predicted 150 that will be in the field during the fall season peak in late October. An idea discussed related to this was the creation of a Semi-Annual Faculty position, with less guaranteed field weeks and less or no benefits compared to the full Annual Faculty position.
Marco asked if we would support capping the number of courses that run mid-summer, in order to create a more even distribution of work throughout the year, or at least to arrest the growing inequality between summer and off-season. We did not reach consensus on this question. We discussed utilizing new course types and running more short courses that are becoming available on a regular basis. This can help more people get a single contract, but does not necessarily increase any one instructor’s job security. Running college-age courses during winter and spring breaks might help to increase contracts available in the off-season.
We discussed career development and progression from Patrol Leader to Course Leader. The standards seem to be inconsistent from branch to branch and between program supervisors. We would like to see more program supervisors who have had ample training to help facilitate course planning and career development. The NIA feels strongly that program supervisors can contribute a lot to the success of a course. The frequent turnover of these positions, potentially related to wages, and a lack of continuity can be a detriment for instructor teams. Having a well-run briefing can mean the difference between low and exceptional student outcomes.
It was also mentioned that there is a precedent set that instructors can be paid for time spent working on advisory committees much like the Morehead panel held by Marco. This occurred during the Bear Protocols Committee after the 2011 bear incident. Increasing instructor ability to be involved in the conversation goes a long way in helping instructors feel appreciated and devoted to better outcomes, growth and the overall stability of the school.
The panel participants agreed that the required number of field weeks needed to qualify for a travel reimbursement for the Faculty Summit should be eliminated or lowered. The consensus was that the current policy discourages attendance. Newer instructors often do not qualify for reimbursement. While these instructors stand to benefit the most from attending.
We would like to express appreciation for the increase in the maximum travel reimbursement amount that began as of September 1, 2015. During the panel discussion in May it was proposed that one way to increase funding for travel was by diverting funds used for the gain share. We could use these funds to establish an endowment out of which future travel expenses could be paid. Sean Williams and John Gans met in August and discussed the possibility of doing more research on this alternative. Thus far there are no set plans to move forward on a research project.
I would like to personally thank you for serving on the Board of Trustees. I look forward to introducing myself to you at this month’s meeting and to celebrating the 50th Anniversary of NOLS. The school has held a place in my family’s history for nearly 45 years. I am the daughter of a Wind River Wilderness course graduate from 1971, in total three members of my family have graduated from six different courses. I came to the school first as a student in 2004 and have since worked and visited branches around the globe. NOLS continues to be an amazing place to work and grow personally and professionally. I look forward to continuing my work at the NIA and engaging with the Board of Trustees and Executive Director team to create even greater success for NOLS and its instructors.