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Finding a community at Impact Academy

Deans for Impact

Category: Leadership

When Dr. Trent Gould joined Impact Academy, he was looking for a place to connect.

In his role as dean of the College of Education and Human Sciences at The University of Southern Mississippi, leading one of the largest teacher-preparation programs in the state, he often found himself with no one to talk to about leadership challenges. Other deans at the university provided support, but did not understand the unique nuances of teacher preparation, such as navigating accreditation, clinical experiences, and legislative changes.

“Nobody at our institution really understands what I do—education is just so different from other disciplines. There are so many voices to listen to, and so many people pulling on you,” he explained. “So I was looking for a community of people that understand what I do. I needed to get things out of my head and talk them through with people who could relate.”

He found supportive colleagues at Impact Academy, joining the 2020 cohort. Periodically throughout the year, the fellows come together to offer consultation to individual members of the group, acting as a sounding board as each navigates their unique big-picture questions.

Last spring, Gould found himself in the “hot seat,” eager to share more about his adaptive challenge: how to unite faculty across a range of academic disciplines. Some of the faculty who prepare future teachers at USM are content experts housed within different departments, under different leaders. Gould was in search of a way to unite the disparate groups around a common vision of excellence.

To prepare for the consultancy, he began writing down his thoughts and questions.

“The most important part of that experience was thinking about the problem in a way that I could articulate. After learning about the use of personal narrative, I began condensing my notes into a story to explain the situation in a way that made sense to my classmates. This approach was completely new for me and equipped me with a tool to engage my colleagues at the university too, to explain the challenges we have,” he said.

The experience was different from other professional development he has participated in. Instead of a competitive environment, senior program director John Roberts created a safe space for leaders, where everyone could be vulnerable and honest.

“It can get very lonely as you go up the ranks. The way that you can socialize with people changes when you become a leader. So being in a room not just of deans, but of educator-preparation deans, was so valuable. I was able to take off all my protective clothing and just be real,” Gould said.

Through the consultancy and conversations with his coach, Dr. Bill McDiarmid, a retired dean who most recently worked at UNC-Chapel Hill, Gould began to realize that unearthing a shared set of values was the key to uniting faculty from different disciplines.

“I requested Bill as my coach because he was at a large institution similar to mine, and I thought he would understand the complexity of the work,” Gould said. “He asked me a lot of questions. He kept pressing in one area I found particularly challenging. Through our conversations, I began to see that I wasn’t being vulnerable enough to let people know what I believe in, and that’s an important starting place to unearth shared values.”

Realizing this, he decided to lead his team through a “Given, Chosen, Core” exercise, which explores different identities that are given, chosen, or core to one’s self.

“We wanted to set a groundwork, and through that exercise, we started to see where our core beliefs as educators align,” he said. “I want our decision-making to be based on a common set of beliefs.”

By centering around shared beliefs, he hopes to create momentum that will propel the program towards achieving lofty goals, such as co-constructing a residency program with local school districts that prepares teachers to excel in any school they enter after graduation, ensuring that Mississippi schools have more effective teachers and leaders.

Going forward, Gould plans to continue creating authentic spaces for faculty and staff that are similar to what he saw modeled in Impact Academy: safe, vulnerable, and collaborative. The fellowship’s emphasis on self-reflection helped him to address his big questions, and he hopes to lead staff through a similar transformation.

“Some leaders are just looking for professional development to build their CV and demonstrate that they have certain hard skills. That’s not what Impact Academy is about. Impact Academy is there for the person trying to find community, that wants to learn more about themselves, and how that story of self is influencing their ability to solve adaptive challenges,” he said.