In order to determine effective leadership styles and practices of Coordinators in Blue Group at Mission Hill After School Program, I sought to obtain a comprehensive picture of coordinator and counselor experiences. I conducted qualitative interviews with current and former Blue Group Coordinators, a Professor at Harvard's Graduate School of Education with a great deal of expertise on education, and held a focus group with current Blue Group Counselors. I also collected survey data from current and former Blue Group counselors.
There can be a lot of variability in the Blue Group classroom across semesters due to factors such as the groups of kids, counselors and coordinators. In this way, there is not necessarily one clear leadership approach to be taken. However, my research did reveal some common themes, tactics and general sentiments regarding the program to make it the most effective. These findings can first be compartmentalized into each of the data collection approaches, and then are triangulated to form concrete recommendations.
From the Counselor Survey:
1. A significant portion of both new and returning counselors felt that their training led by coordinators for program at the beginning of the semester was inadequate.
2. The majority of the counselor respondents indicated that they felt supported by their coordinators "a moderate amount" despite indicating strong relationships with their coordinators in the other questions.
From the Coordinator Interviews:
1. Coordinators believe that the most important aspect of their role with the students is building mutual trust and respect. Any coordinator can do that through focusing on forming relationships with each kid (there is also a component that is just dependent on time spent and consistently showing up).
2. Because of the variance of the counselors' experience and the range of personalities / learning styles the students have, a coordinator needs to be flexible, adaptable, observant and patient.
3. In terms of their approach to leading, many of the current coordinators opted to be hands off of the counselors while former coordinators' classroom dynamics called for more action. This difference can be attributed to variations in students in the classroom as well as both the number of counselors and potentially their experience level. Many current coordinators try to first be hands off and and then intervene if necessary. They let the counselors handle situations because such engagement can help counselors grow their relationship with their students.
4. The coordinators wished they had known more information about the kids they would be working with prior to starting their role. They believed such information could have helped them learn more quickly each student's unique personality and behavior. The coordinators would be aware of what was normal for a student and pick up on the student's cues (such as if they are headed towards a shutdown) allowing them to be better equipped to take action.
5. A number of the coordinators began their role with a more authoritarian style of leadership in which they established boundaries and rules, and were a bit stricter. This approach of course depends on a coordinator's personality and comfort level as well as balancing leadership styles with their co-coordinator. At the same time, coordinators who initially adopted a stricter voice were satisfied with that approach as it set an early precedent for respect, and allowed for the coordinators to become more lenient over time but still be firmer when necessary with success.
6. Lastly, the coordinators recognized that since Blue Group consists of 11 and 12 year-old students, it is important to offer some leniency and choose battles intelligently as the kids are older and have their own independence and agency.
From the Counselor Focus Group:
1. The counselors appreciated that the coordinators gave them space and had a hands off approach. The counselors felt that this style allowed them to develop stronger relationships with their kids.
2. They sometimes felt that the coordinators did not always provide enough communication and left expectations (particularly around behavior management) unclear.
3. The counselors indicated that they wanted to receive more feedback throughout the semester (both when they are doing things well and poorly)
4. Lastly, they think having access to more information on the students would be incredibly beneficial. This could include everything from standard information about the kids, to their personalities and helpful tips to know, to their time spent with other counselors on the other days each week.
From Professor Kay Merseth:
1. As a whole, coordinators need to have more awareness of their students backgrounds: seek questions such as where are they coming from, what are some neighborhood specific issues?
2. Coordinators need to communicate clearly to counselors about both roles' responsibilities. They should incorporate reciprocal accountability where they hold counselors to high expectations and expect honest feedback regarding their own performance.
A General Guiding Approach for a Blue Group Coordinator
- Focus on forming relationships with each kid (and each counselor) to build trust and respect
- Be flexible, dynamic, and adaptable
- Communicate with the counselors your expectations and their role in the classroom
- Depending on comfort level and personality, consider initially employing a bit more authority (to help establish respect)
- Be honest with the students, intentional with your actions, and recognize that comfort will also come with time, patience, and trial & error
1. Improve training for Coordinators and Counselors
Concrete Changes and Improvements
In order for coordinators to be able to adopt a more hands off approach, the classroom needs to have strong, well equipped counselors. While a training environment will always be different than being at MHASP in person, there are ways to make the learning curve for both coordinators and counselors feel less steep. First, the role simulations and engagement of scenarios for both counselors and coordinators need to be more realistic and Blue Group specific. Examples should be explored that have really occurred in the past semester, so that they are relevant. Second, incoming coordinators should spend some time shadowing and observing current coordinators to see and learn firsthand practices and approaches to conducting a classroom that seem effective. This component will allow for incoming coordinators to witness everything from logistics to tactics to successful leadership styles, and will make the first day of program much more familiar.
2. Create Institutional Memory
While counselors and coordinators rotate through MHASP, many of the kids have been in the program from ages 6 to 13+. It would be incredibly beneficial to create short biographies for each of the students that includes a photograph, name, and then information about their personality, behavior in program, techniques that have historically been effective, any pieces of information that might make it easier to connect to the student. Both coordinators and counselors could contribute to the content of these biographies. They could then be circulated to counselors and coordinators ahead of the start of the semester and be referenced throughout. In this way, despite a lot of staff turnover, there can be a consistent familiarity with the students in MHASP. In turn, counselor's will feel more comfortable taking on more responsibility in the classroom with kids that are not their direct pairing. The familiarity will also contribute to greater cohesiveness and sense of community.
3. Increase in Feedback Opportunities:
There are already mid-semester check ins between coordinators and new counselors, however additional feedback opportunities will allow for both counselors and coordinators to adjust their leadership approaches when necessary. Coordinators can be more proactive about acknowledging both exemplary and non-exemplary counselor tactics in the classroom with a quick text, email or conversation during the walk to the vans. To avoid any discomfort, counselors can provide feedback and suggestions to coordinators through an anonymous survey (perhaps it is sent out monthly) as a way to help coordinators continue to improve.
4. Compile and Circulate List of Tips and Tricks
Finally, there are some elements of being a coordinator in which universal tips and tricks can apply or at least provide some guidance. Before coordinator turnover at the end of each semester, the outgoing coordinators typically meet with the incoming ones. However, the suggestions provided can easily get lost or forgotten, so keeping a recorded document that covers topics ranging from behavior management to curriculum planning could be beneficial. For example, one behavior management tip provided during my interviews was using time limits as a strategy to get students back on track with work. Another general suggestion was for coordinators to get to know each kid individually and remember smaller details such as his/her preferred snack choice to indicate that the coordinator pays attention and cares.