Beyond the Syllabus

Some savvy and foresight are basic to becoming a successful adjunct by Robert L. Watson and Cynthia J. MacGregor

“Experience is the best teacher, especially when it’s someone else’s experience.”

That expression captures the essence of how valuable practicing school administrators serving as adjunct professors can be to a university’s administrator preparation program.

Being able to share the insights gained from years of experience can be extremely rewarding for a school administrator. But it takes more than years of practice in a central-office role to succeed as an adjunct professor. Adjuncts in educational administration must appreciate the bigger context in which their courses exist in a complex university system. They also need to understand the administrator certification process.

To avoid the common pitfalls of a teaching assignment, adjuncts will require some basic technology skills and need to know how to evaluate success during the course rather than relying strictly on end-of-semester evaluations and post-semester feedback.

Although universities may have somewhat different expectations of their part-time faculty, we believe the following pointers, based on our surveying of 27 adjuncts in educational leadership at our state university, can improve an adjunct professor’s chances of a rewarding teaching assignment.

Finding the Fit
Adjunct professors typically are given a syllabus and a textbook for each course to be taught. The syllabus provides the basic information students will need and the textbook presumably will match those being used by full-time professors in the department. This is a foundation for successful instruction but far from adequate. What will enable an adjunct to teach effectively may not be readily apparent from reviewing the printed materials.

An adjunct professor should ask how the course fits into other departmental requirements. Many classes have prerequisites or serve as a prerequisite for more advanced courses. What knowledge should typical students have coming into the course, and what knowledge should they have when they leave?

Recognizing the bigger picture also means asking about graduation portfolios and departmental comprehensive exams. Some educational administration programs will require projects to be included in a culminating portfolio, and this work may need to be presented in a certain style. As for comprehensive exams, successful adjuncts will want to be certain their students are adequately prepared for what is to be covered.

Perhaps the best strategy to ensure the course includes the essential pieces beyond the syllabus and textbook is to communicate directly with a full-time professor who teaches the course. This faculty member also can give suggestions for class activities and fill in any gaps regarding departmental requirements not spelled out in the course syllabus. If the university uses an online classroom program, such as Blackboard, the faculty member can help the adjunct in its use.

An adjunct professor will quickly discover that teaching a single course requires a tremendous amount of time to prepare and administer. By taking the initiative to contact an experienced faculty member for guidance, the adjunct can eliminate extraneous preparation and focus on what’s essential.

Typical Problems
Several complications often experienced by adjunct professors can be prevented with a little savvy and foresight.

First, adjuncts should inquire about campus parking and get a good campus map (usually available from the parking administration office) to identify an appropriate lot or garage near the classroom building. Some colleges provide parking permits to their adjunct professors, while others may charge a fee for the semester. At some campuses, late-afternoon and evening parking does not require a permit the way daytime parking does. What you don’t want is to find a parking ticket on your vehicle’s windshield. It can destroy the glow of a wonderful evening of stimulating discussion with your students.

Room assignments also can be treacherous. If possible, an adjunct should find the assigned classroom in advance of opening day and learn how many students have enrolled. During a quick visit, the adjunct can make note of the space available in the room, the arrangement of seats and the presence of technical equipment. Adult students, especially educators who’ve spent long workdays in school, appreciate a room that is large enough and contains cushioned chairs with tables rather than a cramped room full of desks intended for young adults. If the assigned room does not meet these criteria, the adjunct can ask whether a more suitable room is available.

As for technology, the adjunct should determine what equipment is available in the assigned room and how it is to be operated or accessed. Sometimes universities have audiovisual equipment but it is kept in a locked storage area to prohibit theft. Adjuncts may need to obtain a key or remote control from the departmental office. Some equipment may need to be reserved through the campus audiovisual service.

What Students Value
Graduate students deeply appreciate what a practitioner can bring to their class instruction. Adjuncts in school administration can offer real-life scenarios from the trenches to launch a class discussion and integrate theories and concepts to the real world. Educational administration students value the practitioner’s ability to make textbook subjects relevant to current practice.

However, the adjunct professor needs to balance the tendency to tell “war stories” with presentations about theories and research. Practicing administrators who share tales from the front lines need to connect the insights they have gleaned from those battles to the broader concepts of the course.

Some adjunct professors are well versed in the necessary technology skills, while others who’ve relied on school district staff to handle their technology needs may be less comfortable. The successful adjunct professor must be competent in the use of e-mail and word processing, including electronic mailing of attachments. The ability to use PowerPoint also can be helpful, particularly if class activities have been developed in this mode by other professors teaching the same courses. Adjunct professors might find that organizing class discussions around PowerPoint slides can enhance the classroom experience.

Lastly, adjunct professors need to know how to search the Internet for resources in the relevant discipline.

If any of these skills are lacking, an adjunct may be able to receive training from the university. Superintendents who have these technology skills should be sure to highlight them when they apply for a teaching position.

University Politics
How do things get done in a university? How are decisions made?

The red tape in university decision making and a confusing chain of command are common, especially compared to small school districts. Fortunately, the adjunct professor isn’t integrally tied to the university political system. What adjunct professors need to know about this complex system is limited to the “who” and “when” of decisions that have an impact on their teaching assignment. Who is responsible for deciding what courses will be assigned to adjuncts? When are these decisions typically made?

An adjunct professor should not rely on the university to provide a consistent and clear decision-making process but should be proactive in searching out answers to these questions. Sometimes decisions about course assignments can be lost in the cracks of the university system, resulting in teaching assignments that vary drastically from one semester to the next. Maintaining good relations and open communications with the department chairs and deans who are making decisions about assignments can improve the chances of consistent employment for the adjunct professor.

Nationwide Licensure
Most school administrators upon entering the world of university teaching don’t know what ISLLC stands for, but they should. This is the abbreviation for the Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium, a national effort started by the National Policy Board for Educational Administration through the Council of Chief State School Officers to provide a thorough, fair and carefully validated assessment for states to use as part of the certification process for principals, superintendents and other school leaders. Currently 11 states require the School Leaders Licensure Assessment—and one, Missouri, requires the School Superintendent Assessment. Several other states are seriously considering it.

While ISLLC standards are used by states in the licensure of school leaders, departments of educational leadership at universities and colleges accredited by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education are required to comply with NPBEA standards for educational leadership programs. These standards (released in January 2002) use the ISLLC framework as a foundation for setting high performance expectations for the type of knowledge, skills and dispositions candidates must have and requires them to have an extensive internship experience in the field. The NPBEA/NCATE standards go beyond the ISLLC model in that they require university/college departments to develop performance activities aligned to the standards and assessments of candidates and the program to ensure individual proficiency and program quality.

When entering into the university world, adjunct professors would be well-advised to review the requirements of these standards prior to developing their course syllabi and classroom activities. Copies can be found at www.npbea.org/ELCC.

The standards can best be applied to course work through the use of projects, case studies, problem-solving activities and vignettes. The website of the Missouri Professors of Educational Administration (www.mpea.org/ has an abundance of these class activities to use in administrative courses (see additional resources).

Evaluating Yourself
Universities typically ask students to evaluate courses, especially those taught by first-time adjunct professors. Normally administered during the last few weeks of the semester, these evaluations give the department chair and the professor feedback about aspects of the course. Unfortunately, this feedback usually is provided well after the course is finished for the semester, making it less immediately useful.

The successful adjunct professor doesn’t rely solely on these required evaluations. Students can be asked to give feedback, preferably in anonymous written form, at various points during the semester. This allows the professor to make adjustments in teaching style while the semester is ongoing.

About four weeks into the class the adjunct professor might solicit feedback from students using a questionnaire with 4-6 open-ended questions. Appropriate queries would include: “What aspects of the class have been most helpful or meaningful?” “What aspects of the class have been most difficult or frustrating?” “What improvements would you like to see in the course?” This process could be repeated in mid-semester.

Teaching graduate students in administrator preparation programs can be a profoundly rewarding experience for the practicing administrator. By understanding and pursuing a few basic dimensions of teaching and university life, an adjunct professor can realize maximum benefit while minimizing frustration. Ultimately the lives of both teacher and student can be made more meaningful.

Robert Watson is an assistant professor of educational administration at Southwest Missouri State University, 901 S. National, Springfield, MO 65804. E-mail: row585f@smsu.edu. Cynthia MacGregor is an assistant professor of educational administration at Southwest Missouri State University.