Sustaining Professional Development in the Midst of COVID - Higher Education

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Sustaining Professional Development in the Midst of COVID

by Edward Pittman

Two years ago, I was asked to lead a professional development initiative. This was a shift from my previous dean’s work in student affairs and campus equity development for more than thirty years. The opportunity to think about supporting students through a different lens, however, has been both revealing and encouraging.

Professional development initiatives that support employees are essential, particularly as we navigate the COVID-19 pandemic and consider how best to reopen campuses. Pivoting to online learning and teleworking while preparing for a new normal has highlighted this need. Perhaps, more than ever before, we are challenged to build the capacity to meet the diverse needs of our students and one another.

Before launching the project, I met with students and student affairs administrators. What I learned from those conversations and extensive work in creating a two-year professional development curriculum consisting of onboarding, over thirty workshops, and mentoring early-career administrators, has helped me to appreciate the changing landscape. According to a 2016 American Council on Education analysis of student protest demands across more than 75 colleges, a little over 70 percent  listed employee training as a requisite for making campuses more inclusive. 

It should not take another crisis or protest to hear this message. We have the capacity to impact a long-standing narrative. Here are six keys for enhancing campus professional development efforts that I’ve learned along the way.

Promote employee well-being and belonging. Students are the reason why we are employed. Our energies are devoted to their success. At the same time, employees perform best when they are physically and psychologically healthy and safe. Creating a sense of belonging is also important. Sometimes it is as simple as appreciating contributions and providing opportunities for learning and growth. Feeling appreciated and valued, as I learned from many workshop participants, goes a long way in fostering well-being and belonging. Ensuring that campus climates are identity affirming and inclusive begins here.

Dr. Edward Pittman

Center inclusion and equity values. Inclusion and equity have to be a core value in professional development initiatives—whether relating to student support or removing barriers that obstruct employee well-being and belonging. In the wake of calls for racial justice after the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless others, colleges and universities have made solidarity statements while committing to dismantle structural racism.

Indeed, we can be part of the solution, considering the resources at our disposal. This includes professional development. It makes sense to include anti-racism work in a professional development curriculum, along with implicit bias, supporting first-generation students, understanding the needs of students with disabilities, xenophobia toward international students, gender-inclusive language, and other content relating to marginalized communities. Not surprisingly, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives are integral to sustaining professional development and training opportunities.

Develop affirming employee learning communities. The concept of mandatory attendance always lurks nearby and, frankly, some training and professional development workshops may have to be mandatory–despite resistance at times. One option, however, is to create affirming learning communities where administrators, support staff, and faculty opt-in rather than being mandated to participate. As utopian as it may sound, the benefit of fostering learning communities is that employees often experience a deeper and more intrinsic motivation to engage. Learning communities to promote student learning are readily accepted. We should adopt similar approaches in the workplace to support employee learning.

Mentoring and supporting early-career administrators. The first five years in higher education administration can be taxing and demanding, especially for student affairs professionals. They are some of the most dedicated, passionate, and social justice-minded colleagues who are often frontline responders in supporting students. Not surprisingly, they are at risk of burn-out. One institutional response can be a cohort-based curriculum to support early-career professionals in navigating the landscape. I met with a cohort of ten professionals over a two-year period for catered lunch dialogues and seminars to engage questions of work-life integration and self-care, navigating identity and institutional culture, values and social justice, career advancement, among other topics relating to their professional lives. Investing in future campus leaders is critical for their success as well as the institution’s.

Prioritize funding for professional development initiatives. Human resource hours and financial commitment to employee learning, talent development, and creating inclusive, affirming work environments is worth every penny. Providing that there is hard data to reflect employee interest, participation, and learning, return on investment can be high. While post-COVID-19 institutional budgets will be constrained, finding ways to keep professional development resources on the table is essential.

Let’s meet the challenge for our students and employees.

Dr. Edward Pittman is the Senior Associate Dean of the College at Vassar College and a founding Steering Board member of the liberal arts college Consortium for High Achievement and Success (CHAS). The opinions expressed in this article are his own.

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