Over the last week, I have finalised copy for a new role at the College: Dean of Students. As I have refined the position description and the advertising collateral, my own sense of why I have given most of my career to work in university residential colleges with young people has been pervasive. I believe in the transformative power of education, and living with young people at the stage of life where they are sorting out what sort of adults they want to be in the world is the greatest privilege. Over the last twenty years, I have watched my students grapple with their new independence and emerging adulthood with wonder. I have witnessed myriad students grow, develop capacity and confidence and emerge from college transformed from living with us.
When I try and describe my role as Principal of a university residential college to those who have not experienced a college before, I feel that they understand I am somewhere between a social worker, a dorm mum and a policeman. It is true that I have aspects of my role that draw on expert listening and advice, nurture and care and discipline. However, the best title for the work I do is ‘educator.’ I thought I might use the rest of this piece to explain why what we do in residential colleges is all about education.
First of all, an educator looks at the individual. Every student’s needs is slightly different than another’s, and a good educator very quickly surmises and responds to a person not a stereotype. I have always tried to see my students as individual people and treat them with respect and care. They each and everyone are complex amalgams of their family history, schooling and location. While all of the students I work with have been successful enough to get into the top Univeristy in Australia, The University of Melbourne, they each have different areas of their learning that need augmenting, shaping and nurture. They all need varying degrees of support, development and care. It is a tremendous privilege to seek each individual’s needs through relationship, a stance so much easier when you live on site with students day to day.
Secondly, an educator is optimistic about each student, despite setbacks, bad behaviour or failure. Sure, young people sometimes make poor decisions, have a lazy semester, or even more commonly, have insurmountable circumstances that overwhelm them for a time. One of the key roles of an educator in relationship with students is to continue to believe, to name the potential you see in each individual, and to assure them of their success in their future by reminding them what they have already accomplished. Setting these markers on what seems like a difficult path at times for young people is essential in helping them navigate themselves to a new place of success and security.
Finally, an educator is committed to ensure that each student has the support and networks they need in order to get where they need to go. As an educator of some 30 years experience, I have networks to share with my students: mentors, contacts, advisers, and supporters. It is my role to always be thinking ahead of the resources that I can offer to my students to aid their success. It may be providing resources well within my everyday world like offering an extra tutorial or sending them to see a good psychologist, but most of the time I have to reach into my own experience and networks and provide specialised support outside of the everyday offering of college.
This is not in any way an exhaustive list of an educator does, but it is a good picture of what I do each day with my own students in residence. A product of a good education myself, it is impossible to speak about my own development outside of these three things that educators have given me: individual attention through relationship, optimism and belief that I would go somewhere and be successful and the provision of support and networks to ensure my success.