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Kicking off this visit to iNACOL, I had the good fortune to co-facilitate part of a pre-conference session on the Administration and Management of Online Programs with D’Athlone Brown, who lives in Chicago and works for Florida Virtual School as a manager. This is our second year facilitating together and we make a good team. I had the chance to spend a few minutes with D’Athlone before heading home and we talked about what life and work is like for her with Florida Virtual School, especially since she works with and manages a team of five who are spread out over the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic and Midwest regions of the United States. Her work closely resembles what we think may be a typical work situation for many of our graduates-to-be: they will control their own schedule, control their location, use a variety of interpersonal communication technologies (email, web conference, cell phone, etc.), and interpret and use data to set goals for their performance. Here is the question I asked her:
What can we learn from your work with a distributed team to help students develop agency?
D’Athlone: When approaching my work with Florida Virtual School as an account manager, I ask myself, “what kind of team do I want and need and what culture do I want to create?” After determining that, I have to figure out what experiences and tools I need to incorporate in order to build that team. In our work, my team travels a lot, they make appointments and interact with clients, and I know that the sales work and client interactions they have requires them to give a lot emotionally. They are always “on” and attentive to their clients, so it can become a situation where you are continually pouring out, spending emotional energy to connect and relate. I have to think about ways to help the team recharge. So, it’s important to incorporate fun into our work. I look for ways to connect to my team and relate in a fun way.
Takeaway: If developing student agency requires the emotional work similar to what she describes, how do we plan “fun” into our workflow and learning spaces to allow connectedness & recharging along the path to develop agency?
D’Athlone: Goals. Everyone on the team has goals. We are in sales, so there are clear metrics and outcomes that we are looking for. I monitor progress and when I find that people are not making the progress that would align them with their goal, it’s my responsibility to engage with them and ask questions. Sometimes there are not easy answers to why we don’t see the progress we expect, so I have to persist with the questions while communicating that we are drilling down, not out of meanness, but out of caring, and out of respect for the goals of our organization. I find that people generally respond well to questions digging into their work, as long as I approach it like a coach would approach working with a capable athlete. You have to stay away from the deficit mindset of fixing what is “wrong” with people, and ask coaching questions that open up our thinking to other possibilities.
Takeaway: How can we clearly communicate learning goals to our learners and use data and coaching questions to build student agency?
D’Athlone: Because our work requires us to travel, and we live in different cities to begin with, it’s important for me to structure time for our team members to connect with me and with each other. For example, I have a weekly check-in with each team member during which we review one or two essential elements of their work: we either talk about actions and progress toward their goals or we are talking about their development and how they are progressing in terms of developing effective skills and dispositions in their work. I find that it works well to alternate the focus of our weekly check-ins, so one week we will talk about their professional development and the next week, we will talk about their goals in terms of lead generation or sales. That way, the topics stay clearly defined and you can have the different types of conversations required for the different topics. It might be hard to, in the same meeting, explore how someone is falling short on a sales goal and then turn around and get a productive reflection on their professional development; they will naturally be clouded in their judgment of their professional development because they didn’t make their sales goals, which is an untrue picture. Growth is not linear. And you can have tremendous insights, breakthroughs and professional growth, and be in a sales slump. Those patterns won’t hold true forever, of course, but it can be hard to be clear, objective and reflective when you are not making your numbers. Our goal is to support people through the challenges of our work, and alternating the focus of our weekly one-on-one conversations helps us achieve that goal.