Home Education News 3 Questions for Yale’s Jenny Frederick on Facilitation Excellence

3 Questions for Yale’s Jenny Frederick on Facilitation Excellence

Jenny Frederick is the executive director of the Yale Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning. Earlier this month, Jenny stepped out of her day job to facilitate a team retreat for the organization where I work, Dartmouth’s Center for the Advancement of Learning (DCAL). Over the length of my career, I’ve participated in many team retreats. This last one that Jenny facilitated was by far the best.

Facilitating a multihour meeting with any organization is a challenge. Figuring out how to plan an agenda that creates strategic alignment and actionable priorities within any organization can be a daunting task. I wanted to know how Jenny pulled it off, and I asked if she would be willing to share her wisdom with all of you.

Q: Jenny, first—while everyone in the center for teaching and learning world seems to know you, there may be a few readers of Inside Higher Ed whom you have not worked with. Can you take a minute and share some information about the Poorvu Center, your role as executive director and the path you have taken to arrive at your role at Yale?

A: Thanks for your opening question, Josh, since teaching centers can take many forms. At Yale, the Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning is a campuswide resource that integrates support for faculty, student learning and writing, and educational technology—including online education. We like to think of ourselves as “one door” for pedagogical and technical expertise.

It’s also important to mention that the Poorvu Center, like many teaching centers, relies on collaborations with other units such as the library and the Office of Institutional Research. As the founding executive director, I’ve been in this role since 2014, working closely with my colleague Lucas Swineford, who oversees digital education within the center.

In the early years, I focused on building the center and establishing programs and processes. These days, I find that a lot of my effort goes to providing educational leadership for the campus. Readers who worked with a teaching center during the pandemic will recognize the essential leadership role played by these organizations, especially in the past few years.

There is no “traditional” path to teaching-center leadership. In my case, I earned a Ph.D. in chemistry and started my career in faculty appointments at teaching-focused institutions in Connecticut (the University of Bridgeport and Western Connecticut State University). I took a job in educational development at Yale in 2007 for a blend of personal and professional reasons and soon realized that I loved the opportunity to continue growing my pedagogical expertise while helping to improve teaching and mentoring for many others. The excellent ways that intense graduate training contributes to my work as an academic administrator is a topic for another conversation. In brief, I draw heavily on skills in problem solving, creativity, data analysis, collaboration and more.

Q: For many in higher education, the idea of spending multiple hours with the people in our unit/department/center can trigger deep feelings of terror. And yet we know that it is important for our campus organizations to take the time and space to get out of the day-to-day work and engage in longer-term strategic planning. What advice would you give to anyone who leads a campus organization about planning a team retreat?

A: One size will not fit all, since retreats will vary in terms of goals and scale. I have three pieces of advice that apply generally to retreat planning. First, pre-work is a vital part of an effective retreat. Doing some reflection or collecting input in advance does several things, such as activating thinking and ideas that will be addressed during the retreat (you aren’t starting from a blank slate). Pre-work also helps a facilitator identify priorities and points of tension and plan productive discussions.

Second, I’m a big fan of structure. In practice, this means accounting in detail for how time will be spent, breaks and pacing types of engagement such as discussion with bouts of individual reflection. Structure doesn’t have to be overly rigid, but carefully planning timelines and transitions provides the scaffold for the work of the retreat. Here’s where I draw on teaching skills and employ the good practice of transparency so participants also know what to expect and see that how we spend our time aligns with the big goals for the retreat.

Third, do something to make it special. A “retreat” signals a step away from daily responsibilities. When conditions allow, going to another building or off-campus site can reinforce the intention to focus on something besides the day to day. You can also be creative, such as reimbursing people for meals during a Zoom retreat or designing a team T-shirt or color that everyone wears. Some of the most memorable retreats I’ve been part of included some unstructured social time, such as a concluding reception or a walk outside.

I would love to hear ideas from your readers about what has made a retreat especially memorable and effective.

Q: I want to ask you about your role as the facilitator for our DCAL retreat. How did you go about preparing to facilitate a multihour conversation with colleagues at an institution that is not your own? What is the philosophy about a successful team retreat that undergirds how you approach the role of facilitator, and how were you able to operationalize those ideas during the convening? And finally, would you consider facilitating other university strategic team meetings if that opportunity should arise?

A: When I am invited to facilitate a retreat or similar event at another institution, I expect to do significant advance planning. I rely on backward design and alignment (pedagogical tools that serve us in many settings). In the DCAL retreat, I met with the center director to figure out their goals for the retreat and, importantly, how the retreat would fit into a broader planning process that DCAL is working on this year. We also identified concrete deliverables for the retreat, which in this case included goals and priorities that would serve as the foundation for planning steps to follow.

The goals and possible products for any retreat will be different, but knowing what we’re aiming for allows me to design a productive process. I’ve mentioned structure and planning, but it’s also important to be flexible. A good facilitator needs to listen, think on their feet and read the room to make subtle or even substantive adjustments where needed.

I believe that effective retreats shift us away from focusing on individual roles to give everyone a voice in larger ideas that affect new or forward-looking directions for an organization. Philosophically, I like to frame this approach as suspending hierarchy and titles in a way that invites collective generative thinking.

Being an outside facilitator allows me to do this because my sense of individuals is only lightly cloaked in knowledge of their specific skills and contributions. When I synthesize themes and reflect them back to the group, ideally each participant can see how their ideas have been incorporated. With DCAL, we created opportunities for brainstorming about key questions for the center’s future. Everyone had agency to think well beyond their own role to shape centerwide goals.

A benefit from this approach is that when we come back to individual roles, everyone is equipped to make strong connections between their daily work and professional priorities and consensus goals for the future. The last point I’ll make here is to emphasize collaboration. If you’re thinking that you can engage a facilitator and hand over the reins, think again! The DCAL retreat is a good example of collaboration before, during and possibly after the intensive event. Your team probably put as much effort into the retreat as I did, so it’s important to recognize that an effective retreat requires time and energy from everyone involved.

My enthusiasm for designing structured processes to help groups with strategic work means that I welcome invitations to collaborate. I find it rewarding to help teams at other organizations, and I always learn new things through the process that inform my leadership role at my own campus.

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