Bringing Life to Work, Bringing Work to Life

by Dr. Michael Wolter, Program Director, Management and Leadership

Experiences in your personal life can profoundly influence how you perform at work.

After my divorce, I found myself as a single parent with two jobs, half-time custody of a two-year-old son, and a full-time graduate student workload. I had bills to pay, mortgage to stay on top of, check-ups for my son, etc. As an undergraduate, I had taken a somewhat more manageable path: I took time off, worked full time, then returned to school to finish my degree. Now, as a graduate student, I was a father with daunting responsibilities and a working professional with a position that did not allow me to “coast” through day-to-day activities.

So I found myself in doubt, asking: can I truly manage work, parenthood, and school? What was going to fall through the cracks? Did I have a strong enough network of support to help make this happen? I was hesitant at first to make any decisions, especially ones based on fear or emotion. I sought my best friend’s advice on how I could make it all work, and her response set the course of my life for the next few years: “You just do. You just make it happen.”

Looking over at my son, sleeping in his bed, helped bring everything into focus: completing school would provide me with greater opportunities, more money, and the chance to show my son that even when your world is pretty shaken, you don’t give up — you pick yourself up and charge ahead.

As I entered the final leg of my schooling, I was assigned an advisor who was to shape how I would interact, advise, and mentor students for the rest of my career. It was not an easy relationship. He did not care about the essential “life elements” of his students. He had a framework and schedule from which he never deviated.

My advisor provided me only short notice when he would like to meet. He would only set appointments during the day on Tuesdays, even though many of his students were working professionals who often juggled multiple day jobs. Family responsibilities and fatigue jeopardized their completing assignments. When I explained that, as a working single parent, my commitments did not coincide with his schedule, he would nod and say he understood because he babysat for his three-year-old grandson three times a year. So he could relate to the difficulties of single parent life.

As our interactions continued, nothing changed. When I had questions on my assignments he tasked me with, he would tell me to look at YouTube if I wanted answers, instead of asking him. This was not how educational support in this modern day should be delivered!

More and more I began to experience fears that my educational journey would never come to a successful conclusion. I would sit there frustrated, absolutely certain that I could truly thrive if only I had an advisor/instructor who provided support, encouragement, and guidance.

After a few months of working with this advisor, I realized that he had lost touch with what it was like to be a student. From that point on, I came to examine a little more deeply the motivations, obstacles, and fears that compel my own students to come to the classes I teach each day.

My graduate experience did finally come to a successful end, and I am currently the director of the Management and Leadership program at Goodwin College. I believe mine is a more holistic and engaging classroom. When my students are distressed, I listen to them, but push myself to truly “hear” what is behind their words. Life stressors? Balancing everything? Fear?

I cannot change my own experiences, but now, as the leader of an academic program, I can create a more positive and affirming environment for my own students. I adjust my availability to find a workable balance between my schedule and theirs. When I share with them that they can reach out to me on a more flexible schedule, that reduces their stress because they know a resource is available to assist them.

Now, I instruct single parents who struggle to come to class when a babysitter cancels or their child has a cold. Working with Goodwin College’s IT team, our Distance Education department, and my academic chair, I have been able to upgrade two classes to allow for live streaming. Students can be home with their children and families — and participate in class. Enhancements have also been made in our online delivery system for more video lectures, transcripts of videos, and video conferencing for select classes.

This is now a cultural norm in my advising as well as my classes, the direct result of the unsuccessful interaction with my own graduate advisor. Many students are only available after hours, so I make myself available to advise, discuss class, and mentor through similar video conferencing options that provide an “in-person” experience much like a visit to campus during “normal” operating hours.

Students can manage their day-to-day responsibilities, finish their educations, and ultimately enhance their worlds.

As I look back on the past few years on how my teaching, advising, and mentoring have evolved, I see now my experiences gave me the determination to finish this journey and NOT be “that” educator to my own students. They also gave me the opportunity to teach my son a lesson in perseverance. I learned a lot from my graduate experiences, and I know that the positive and the negative collectively shaped me as a professional, an educator, and a parent.

In the end, it all worked out. I finished my degree and am now engaged to a beautiful woman, who is also an educator and administrator. We have two amazing boys who we work hard to provide for. My career and life is headed in the direction I worked so hard to build. The journey still seems daunting and at times, but thanks to the support network I’ve created, it was successful.

Educators need to remember that times have changed. Students are balancing work (sometimes multiple jobs), family, and school. The traditional approach to education that has been in place for years does not apply to the modern student. Office hours cannot be only during the day. Availability cannot be 9 to 5. Most importantly, students are walking into the classroom worrying about paying loans, rent, and mortgage, and making sure their kids get their homework, as well as completing their own. As educators, we need to look how we can provide our students a supportive learning environment without sacrificing the quality of the education. As educators we need to listen more, understand more, hear beyond the words. We need to look at the whole person in our classroom, not just the student persona. As “that” student, I understand the stresses and fears that weigh on you daily to meet everyone’s expectations and needs. That experience directly impacted how I provide resources for my own students’ success stories.

Click here to learn more about the Management and Leadership program at Goodwin.