By: Mary Kate Watkins, M.Ed. ’19

In the first half of my interview with Dean Niles, we focused on his experience as a student and his advice for students seeking a career in education.  

How do you view your role at William & Mary?

My motivation is really around identifying ways that my service can be useful to our faculty, students and staff.  A primary goal I have is helping people and programs achieve their goals.  I strive to create a climate within the school where people feel valued and aware that their presence matters.  Higher education is so much a hierarchy, right?  Undergrad, Master’s, Doctoral, Assistant Professor, Associate Professor, Professor, and wherever it goes from there. In terms of what we learn from each other, however, we know that the learning process is mutual and multidirectional.  Personally, I learn important things every day from our staff, students, and faculty.

Part of what I value, as a person who’s been in higher education for a while, is that you don’t have to be in an administrative role to be a leader.  Everyone has a role to play in leadership.  Faculty do this by mentoring students, staff do this in the ways they make our school better through their dedicated service, students do this when they are fully engaged in the learning process.  In my work with students, I have been very intentional about engaging students in that process.  In a way, it is my opportunity to pay forward what was offered to me by my advisor when I was a doctoral student.  I have about 150 publications and probably about 140 of them are with students because it’s so important to me that I can help other students feel that sort of empowerment that I experienced as a student.  One of the things I like least about being a Dean is that I don’t have the opportunity to work as frequently with students as I would like.  I do know that I will finish my career as a as a professor again because I really value that sort of work opportunity.  Being part of a student’s developmental process is a real honor. 

What makes the William & Mary School of Education unique?

That’s an easy one.  Our faculty really do care about your personal and career development.  Our faculty and staff are incredibly committed to the work that they do in the School of Education.  Your presence and your contributions are incredibly important to what we are as a School of Education.

I think for deep learning to happen people have to feel like who they are and what they bring to the work that they do, whether it’s faculty, staff, or student, is sufficient to contribute. And it’s not about always “getting it right.”  There’s much more learning that happens when it’s not perfect.  We’re all operating from a coping model when it comes to who we are how we live and what we do.  And when we acknowledge that, we engage in our work and our interactions with others with genuine humility that creates the space for us to take risks and grow into the best people we can be – it shifts the focus from whether we are failing or succeeding to learning.   If we lose a sense of humility, then we move into dangerous territory because then we assume a level of arrogance that is detrimental to the learning process.

Another piece that’s important is that we have to take the time to reflect upon what our daily experiences have to teach us about our place in the world.  Paying attention and engaging in mindful practices are essential for being able to integrate our experiences into our self-awareness.  When we aren’t intentionally reflective, we tend to gloss right over this process. Instead, we focus on human doing and exclude human being.  We get too caught up in probability thinking, which is always there at some level, but it’s much more essential to focus on the possibilities because that’s usually where the creative solutions to complex problems reside.

How would you describe your leadership over the School of Education?

Here, we try to be transformational for students schools and communities. One of the ways we can help be transformational is by committing to our own transformation. We have many faculty doing very transformational work.  As a leader, I try to join them in that process by taking on a service orientation to leadership. Shared governance is important for many reasons, but one is that is allows for group ownership of solutions to our challenges.  We hire very strong people as faculty and staff, and we admit outstanding students – that is a powerful confluence of resources that collectively is transformative.

What would you like everyone reading this to know about you?

First of all, what I’d like to say is that there’s a standing invitation to people; if there are ways that I can be useful to them, then I genuinely want to help. We’re here to work on things together and learn together.  It’s a real honor to be connected to this school and the people in this school.  We have an important commitment to continuous improvement.  And one thing is very exciting is that we have a president that really exemplifies that commitment. I think she is already energizing us as a university and leading us into some very exciting places.

Part 2: On Being a Student

____________________________________________________________________________ Mary Kate Watkins is an Editorial Assistant for Wren’s Nest and a M.Ed. ’19 student in the Educational Policy, Planning, & Leadership program at William & Mary.

Image: Joshua Chung