Category: UBC Okanagan

September 6, 2017: the day I disappeared

Yesterday, September 6, 2017, was the first day of classes at UBC Okanagan. I’ve been Director of the Centre for Teaching and Learning for just over a year so this is my first real experience with the beginning of the Fall term.

On top of the usual visitors looking for help with their courses, we adopted Canvas as our learning technology ecosystem in June so this is the first term with the new LMS. The Centre was buzzing. Four of the Centre staff plus 3 student workers were consulting with just as many course instructors. People were coming and going, jostling to get around and find chairs to sit in.

And I was sitting 10 feet away in my office, door wide open, doing…nothing? Well, not nothing but I wasn’t sitting out there with a course instructor, troubleshooting course design or learning technology issues. It felt really strange, like I was…unnecessary?

I spent last night trying to justify to myself that I do, in fact, have an important role to play. “…created welcoming space for consultation…”, “…ensured Centre consultants are trained and enabled…”, “…allocated time, resources, personnel to handle peak periods…” And more leadership/management phrases that popped into my head. Nothing was sticking.

This morning, it all became clear.

During my commute to work, I was listening to the latest episode of
Bonni Stachowiak’s terrific Teaching in Higher Ed podcast (highly recommended, btw!) Bonni recounted a time when her students were so engaged in an activity, she felt she’d “disappeared”. I’ve had that happen to me, too. At first, it felt really weird. And then the educator in me realized that’s exactly what I strive for: setting up the learning environment, creating a lesson, preparing the students to engage, and then handing over the class to them to engage, collaborate, and build their own knowledge while I did…nothing.

That’s what happened yesterday. I disappeared. It was awkward. And, I guess, awesome.


Over the last 6 months, I’ve had the opportunity to participate in a really great management and leadership training program at UBC Okanagan. Organizational Development & Learning Manager Laurie Mills and ODL Specialist Lisa Frost organized, hosted, and facilitated a rich program that led us through four quadrants of leadership and management of people and tasks.

Leadership and management of people and tasks. (Source: Laurie Mills, UBC Okanagan)
Leadership and management of people and tasks. (Source: Laurie Mills and Lisa Frost, UBC Okanagan)

Now that the program is coming to an end, Laurie asks what stood in each quadrant.

People Leadership: inspiring, engaging, and influencing others

is about initiating and managing change by influencing without authority. Drew Bird talked about what motivates people to do good work:

What Do People Really Want? Does the leader have influence
to make this happen?
to be treated as an individual Green check Wikimedia Commons
to have a voice and contribute Green check Wikimedia Commons
to be valued for their talent Green check Wikimedia Commons
to have some control over their work Green check Wikimedia Commons
to be treated respectfully Green check Wikimedia Commons
to work towards a goal Green check Wikimedia Commons
to learn and grow Green check Wikimedia Commons
to be treated equitably Green check Wikimedia Commons
to be part of something that they value Green check Wikimedia Commons

Nic Tsangarakis reminded us of the power of thoughtful debate and active listening, with a goal of learning.

The more we talk, the more we find we have in common.
The more we talk, the more we find we have in common.

Task Leadership: establishing and pursuing vision and purpose

is about managing transition. Laurie reminds us, “when there’s change, there are losses.” And as William Bridges says in Managing transitions: Making the most of change (2009), transition starts with an ending and ends with a beginning.

Task Management: organizing and resourcing the job to be done

is about identifying and dealing with the many constraints on a task like cost, time, resources, risk, quality, scope. And that the project leader’s role changes and adapts.


From Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (2002), we read

“Trust is the foundation of real teamwork. And so the first dysfunction of a team is a failure on the part of the team members to understand and open up to one another. It is an absolutely critical part of building a team.

“Great teams do not hold back with one another. They admit their mistakes, their weaknesses, and their concerns without feat of reprisal.

“Teamwork begins by building trust and the only way to do that is to overcome our need for invulnerability.”

People Management: coaching and developing staff to maximize performance

“Managing people,” Laurie says,”effectively means paying attention to what motivates individuals, how they want to be supported and recognized for their efforts. It also requires skillful communication to navigate and strengthen the interpersonal dynamics that impact engagement, teamwork, and productivity.” She also reminded us that when people are under-performing, it’s possible

  • people don’t know what to do
  • they don’t know how to do it
  • there’s something getting in the way

Laurie urged each of us to stretch out of our leadership and management comfort zone so I’m going to

practice how to let go of your need for order and control, and appreciate the benefits of improvisation. Allow the creativity of the people on your staff to emerge out of unstructured situations. (FIRO Business Leadership Report)


Things I’ve learned about leadership and management

Before I started this program (and this job), I had the feeling that leaders know how to do everything. That’s what you see on TV and in movies, where the plant manager goes and works on the assembly line, when the oil boss goes out and fixes the rig, when the general joins the SEAL team for a daring raid. Leadership and management, then is about delegating those tasks to others so you don’t have to do it yourself, giving you more time to, uh, lead?

I’m coming to the realization that’s not the kind of leadership I want to provide. Instead, I want to make strategic decisions, with input from my team, about where we’re headed, identify who has the skills, and then provide the resources and support for my colleagues to do their thing. They have the skills and expertise (and the motivation to learn) – they need an opportunity to demonstrate those skills and be recognized for their contributions.

Gee, this sounds a lot like the kind of educator I try to be. An educator who recognizes that students come to the classroom with knowledge, skills, and conceptions about how the world works. My job is to draw that out of them and create a safe, supportive, inclusive environment for them to use their strengths to learn my material in a way that’s meaningful and valuable to them. And to welcome them to contribute to the class and bring all of us further than I could go without them.

It’s okay to take time to think before acting or reacting.

Difficult conversations are difficult. The DEAR model (via Glen Sollars) helps you plan (and rehearse) the conversation:

Describe specifically what you want to see and hear
Explain the impacts, standards, rationale, and how it makes you feel (using “I” language)
Ask for their point of view, suggestions, options
Request what you’re seeking for the future, whether it’s compliance, cooperation, or commitment

The Ask stage is powerful. It gives the person a chance to provide more info, share their side of the story, explain themself, make suggestions,…before the leader makes the request. It stops the difficult conversation from being a lecture and replaces it with  thoughtful debate and active listening, with a goal of learning.

I’ve had a chance to use the DEAR approach and I have to say, it worked great. The most important part, I think, was the time I spent drafting the D, E, A, and R before the meeting. That forced me to clearly recall what led to the conversation, identify why “I” cared, find a question that didn’t simply confirm the answer I expected (that is, you can’t ask, “Why do you think it went wrong?” because their honest answer might be, “I don’t think anything is wrong” but they can’t say that without contradicting you! With help from Glen, I went with, “What are your thoughts about […]?”) I also had the time to come up with clear requests. When the conversation happened, I was prepared. I didn’t stumble through it. The person “cleared the air” about the incident. We’re not just back to where we were before the incident – things are stronger now because of this conversation.

A funny thing happened at one of the program’s events. Not funny-haha but funny-odd. And ironic, since the program is about leadership and the event was about inclusion, implicit bias, and recognizing privilege.

It was a workshop with my peers, not a meeting with a hierarchy and power structure. To get to know us, the facilitator asked each of us to say our name and what we do, and to share something we’re celebrating. Around the table we went, people sharing their celebrations at work, at home, wherever. I said I was celebrating the fact that we’d received enough proposals for the conference I’m organizing to put together a rich, full, 2-day program. Immediately, both the facilitator and one of my peers said, “Oh, is that conference on again this year? We usually submit something but we didn’t hear about. It’s too bad we didn’t know…” Professional-me made a mental note to check how we advertised the call for proposals and look for ways they could still participate. Personal-me was knocked back by this declaration of my failure (no imposter syndrome here or anything, nope, not at all…) As professional as I want to be, I shut down. I didn’t engage with the group like I normally would. I reacted poorly, I guess. Great, another failure.

Here’s my point: if you’re the leader and you ask your team to do something risky, like reveal something personal, you’d better be prepared to thank them for the contribution, to celebrate or empathize with them. If you criticize or judge, or permit others people to criticize or judge, you risk that person disengaging for the rest of the meeting, and potentially longer.

Gee, back to educator-me, again. If an instructor creates an inclusive classroom environment where every student feels they are welcome to contribute and a student finally feels so confident that they speak up, and then instructor immediately critiques or belittles them, well, you can be pretty sure that student won’t say anything for the rest of the class. Or the next. Trust is so fragile. It take so much work to build it and so little to break it. Huh, imagine that – there’s a whole paragraph about trust a few hundred words ago. Are you suggesting, Peter, that teaching and leadership have a lot in common…?

Teaching and leadership have a lot in common.

Self-assessments. We did a lot of them.

  • EQ-i2.0 emotional intelligence survey
  • Lumina Spark portrait (that’s the one with the colours…)
  • Strengths-Based Leadership (“StrengthsFinder”) survey
  • FIRO Business Leadership survey

As someone coming from a background in the hard sciences – astronomy, physics, and especially math – I was skeptical about the validity of these surveys and their results. I had to rely on the knowledge that people in the field trust these surveys, that the data are valid, and that the results are patterns based on a lot of data. It’s like I didn’t know the Theorem of Pythagoras but my mathematical colleagues tell me it’s valid to add a^2 and b^2 and compare it to c^2, and that there’s statistically significant evidence that a^2 + b^2 = c^2 in right-angle triangles. So, I’ll trust them and be pretty confident that since 25 + 144 = 169, a 5-12-13 triangle probably has a right angle.

I have the most confidence in the Lumina survey because despite my skepticism, my personalized report says,

You are known as someone who likes to work with facts and solid evidence. You would feel very uncomfortable if you were forced to make quick decisions, without the necessary due diligence and information gathering. You firmly believe in evidence-based thinking and will challenge people who thinking seems whimsical or without foundation [*cough* *cough* learning styles]

My report goes on to say,

You are probably appalled by some of your colleagues who use less systematic techniques and whom you may see as data immune.

You are highly aware of the destructive potential of conflict, and tend to bring out your innate send of diplomacy when you feel a dispute getting out of hand.

Though you tend not to resolve an issue in an outright confrontation, you often try to repair  relations from behind the scenes. Your desire for harmony may manifest itself sometimes as a willingness to say No, and this could lead to over-committing.

You don’t like people who do not take into account other people’s views. You find their communication style to be selfish and uncaring toward the team.

When you’re overextended, you shift from reliable to hesitant: you may hesitate on all further interactions and decisions if the possibility of meeting commitments is hindered.

So…yep, yes, uh-huh, yeah, nailed it, hey how did you get inside my head?

If you’ve done Lumina, you’re probably wondering about my colour. I’m blue, with some blue and more blue, and maybe a hint of greeny-blue. See for yourself:

My Lumina splash is blue with blue and some blue, putting me squarely in the observing, cautious, evidence-based, practical, reliable, down-to-Earth quadrant.
My Lumina splash is blue with blue and some blue, putting me squarely in the observing, cautious, evidence-based, practical, reliable, down-to-Earth quadrant.

There’s a lot more in the Lumina report and the other assessments’ reports. I’m continuing to dig through them, with both skepticism and recognition that there’s a lot there to help me.

Lastly, I learned know that none of this would have been possible with the incredible effort Laurie Mills and Lisa Frost, and the generosity and patience of my cohort. I am certainly much better prepared for the leadership role I find myself in. Thanks, all.

Teaching from a place of respect, equity, and compassion

Today, my Centre for Teaching and Learning published this statement as the lead item in our monthly newsletter.

Teaching from a place of respect,
equity, and compassion

In light of recent world events, I want to assure our community that the resources coming from the Centre for Teaching and Learning will always come from a place of respect, equity, and compassion. We are committed to helping UBC educators create welcoming and supportive environments for every learner, regardless of religious belief, sexual orientation, gender identity, ability, or racial or ethnic background.

Discussions about society absolutely have a place in our classrooms, in any and all disciplines. UBC educators and students must be able to have critical, scholarly discussions about hatred, racism, oppression, colonialization, and more. These are not easy conversations for educators to initiate or moderate, and the CTL is ready to share our resources and seek out other support if necessary.

We are proud to be part of this teaching and learning community. We are grateful for the opportunity to contribute.

Peter Newbury, Ph.D.
Director, Centre for Teaching and Learning
Sr Advisor, Learning Initiatives

Notes about how and why I wrote it:

  • This is most definitely not the first draft. Or the second. Or the third. The first version was much longer. My boss, the Provost and VP Academic at UBC Okanagan, Cynthia Mathieson, sent back a “less is more” revision. Remarkably, but not surprisingly, all the phrases and sentences I’d struggled the most to write were removed. The ones I wrote easily and with conviction are still here. Imagine that, huh?
  • Several other statements have come from UBC this week, like this and this from UBC President Santa Ono and another from UBC Okanagan Deputy Vice Chancellor, Deborah Buszard. They mention respect, diversity, and inclusion and share the concerns of my campus and my institution. I felt it was important to include compassion, too, because every instructor I know cares about the success of their students.
  • Revisions flipped back and forth between “These are not easy conversations…” and “These may not be easy conversations…” In my experience observing other instructors, and definitely in my own classroom, these are not easy conversations to initiate and moderate. I’ve been fortunate to see some excellent class-wide discussions about racism and I can tell you, that instructor (I’m looking at you, Simeon) worked hard to design that lesson and worked hard to facilitate the discussion. He made it look easy and natural – that’s one of the reasons students genuinely and thoughtfully engaged. So, I advocated for the bolder statement – “these are hard” – and the Provost respected it. (I’m very grateful for the trust she puts in me.)
  • It was important that my name appear at the bottom of the statement. The newsletter comes from my centre so ultimately, everything has my name under it eventually. I wanted it to be explicit, though, so people know this is what I stand for. And to let the campus know this is what they can expect from everyone of the people in my centre. I also want to let the people in my centre know this my expectation for them and that I’ll support them if someone questions their motivation for the support they provide.
  • I deliberately added “ability” to the “regardless of religious belief, sexual orientation, gender identity, or racial or ethnic background” phrase often found in statements like this. Students and educators with different abilities need the same respect, equity, and compassion when it comes to teaching and learning.
  • Oh, and the Oxford comma. It’s now part of my style guide. I use it in emails, documents, and blog posts. Having declared to myself that it’s what I do, I no longer pause at the end of a list, wondering if this is or isn’t a place where I could or couldn’t, should or shouldn’t, add a comma. Saves me a tiny bit of cognitive load I can use elsewhere.

Outcomes and feedback

I’ll let you know what I hear as more and more people open their email…