Learning Curve

An Open Letter to New ASP Colleagues

Sarira A. Sadeghi

The Sam & Ash Director of Academic Achievement
Chapman University Fowler School of Law

Originally Published in The Learning Curve, Summer/Fall 2021

Dear Newly Hired ASP Colleagues,

Welcome! Starting in academic support and bar prep can be both exciting and daunting. ASP is a special and unique field, especially as it is still growing, developing, and changing within legal education. Here are some macro-level observations that may be helpful to those just starting in ASP or who feel they are still “new” to the field.

You will probably feel “new” for a long time, even when you are not.

People are considered “new” to legal education for approximately their first three years. After three years, these veterans shift from being mentored to mentoring, and are expected to have sage knowledge about their field.

There are many of us “veterans” who still sometimes feel new. Perhaps it is a version of imposter syndrome; perhaps it is because we are so busy, jumping from one school year and bar cycle to the next without adequate time to process; perhaps it is because we are always learning new things in this role. Regardless of why, if you feel a little offbalance, insecure, or simply “new,” do not be afraid to reach out to colleagues around you and at other institutions. We all felt this way in the beginning and, to be honest, many of us sometimes still do.

Take some time to get to know your institution.

Every institution is unique, as are the people you work with. Take some time to learn about the students, the culture of the school, and the internal politics. It takes approximately one calendar year—a full academic and bar cycle—to learn these things, and this knowledge is vital. This time allows you to deeply understand the needs of your students and school and cultivate ideas that will have a meaningful impact on your specific constituency. It provides invaluable insight into how to navigate the internal dynamics of your institution to achieve your objectives. At both institutions where I have worked, I was able to implement some good ideas and successful programing early on, and at both institutions, I made mistakes by offering or implementing ideas before I fully understood the landscape. Taking the time to learn about your institution before you attempt to make significant changes can make those changes much more effective.

Trust yourself.

Although you may feel “new,” don’t be afraid to trust yourself. You were once a law student—what can you pull from that experience? Even if you are new to teaching, don’t be afraid to trust your voice, the experiences you bring with you, and the new ones you are gaining. Share new ideas with your colleagues; you might get support, or you might not. If not, ask why: perhaps they tried a similar idea, and it did not yield successful results; perhaps there are insufficient funds or infrastructure to implement the idea. If your idea is rejected, don’t get frustrated; use this as an opportunity to learn why there might be resistance to certain ideas. You may find that you are learning more about the science of learning and teaching, or simply about the political landscape of your institution. Or perhaps your idea provides a fresh new perspective that fills a gap and is welcomed. You won’t know until you put it out there. Everyone who starts in this field comes in with a set of instincts drawn from their own experiences. Share those ideas and see what might happen.

Keep learning and sharing with others.

Everyone starting in this field, no matter their background, will have a lot to learn, including those who came to this profession with teaching experience. There is so much to learn about teaching pedagogy, the science of learning, and best practices, all of which change as research grows. The tenets of teaching and learning transcend legal education. Universities around the country have teaching and learning centers whose sole focus is to better understand how people learn and how to improve teaching. Many of these centers provide their resources for free and publish regularly, providing ample opportunity for us to continue developing.

Our community is also incredibly prolific. Colleagues within our ranks have published wonderful articles and books, present regularly at regional and national conferences, and collaborate with stakeholders to produce important research. There are so many opportunities and spaces to learn from and participate in. Absorb as much as you can.

Additionally, don’t be afraid to develop your own professional interests and pursue them. While most people enter this field because they want to help others, do not be afraid to help yourself and pursue your own professional interests as well. Engage with colleagues, attend conferences, collaborate on presentations or articles, continue to learn and share. If you want to write, you should. Finding time is not easy, but perhaps you start with an article like this one. Perhaps you write about things you are interested in that have nothing to do with ASP. Maybe you want to present and share at conferences but don’t know where to start or feel like you have nothing to contribute (you do!). These are great opportunities to reach out to a peer, even (especially!) at another institution and see if they would like to present with you or coauthor an article; chat about your shared experiences, ideas, concerns, and go from there. Added benefits of collaboration are accountability and confidence to participate and contribute.

Ask for help.

We tell our students that they should ask for help, and we should do the same. This is a generous community populated by natural helpers. Do not be afraid to ask. If you are not sure who to ask, reach out to one or two trusted people and ask them who they think you should reach out to. In my five years in this community, every question I have ever asked, whether on the ASP listserve or directly to an individual, has always received a fruitful answer. This community is your biggest resource and is happy to be tapped into. All you must do is ask.

Different situations may call for different advice.

Every institution has a different culture and different relationship with their ASP. We are all, especially those of us who have worked at more than one institution, acutely aware of how different the ASP experience is at each school.

One of the gifts of this profession is that we are all champions for the other people in this community. Most ASP professionals are extremely adept at qualifying their advice or asking probing questions to get a sense of your situation before offering any suggestions (an approach we often take with our students, as well). Be open to their advice but, if it does not feel right for you, your situation, or your institution, take it with a grain of salt: not all advice, no matter how well intentioned, will be the right fit for any given ASP challenge at any given school. If the advice does not feel like a good fit, that is ok. Ask someone else. Reach out to other peers and colleagues. This community is hundreds strong and, despite our different circumstances, has the shared experience of working in this niche field. Not all advice will work for every person or situation, but you will find someone who can and will offer the advice you need.

Cultivate many mentors and peers.

You can have many mentors and reach out to different mentors for different purposes. Perhaps there is someone who always has exceptional teaching ideas that resonate well with your style and needs. Another might have an emotional intelligence that connects well with you. You might have a peer at another institution that you can vent to. Mentors and peers are instrumental to our development and professional experiences and, just as in life, we can turn to different people for different purposes.

Be flexible.

By its nature, our field is oft-changing—the research is growing, we keep learning, our incoming students are changing, and the landscape in which our work exists is evolving. The pace of these changes seems to be increasing. While legal education moves exceptionally slowly, it is fighting a current that seems to be moving ever faster—and that was before a global pandemic. Perhaps the changes institutions and faculty were forced to make because of the pandemic may lead to faster changes within legal education, but it is too soon to tell what the long-term impacts will be. Additionally, some parts of legal education may change faster than others in the coming years. It is important to be flexible and open to these changes, and even push through a few of your own if you have the chance.

Take care of yourself.

Our work is giving by nature and our constituents take by design. For most of us, this paradigm gives us satisfaction. But the demands many of us face are not sustainable. One silver lining of the pandemic is that it allowed many people to realize the lack of—or need for—balance in their lives; ASP professionals are no exception. ASP burnout is very real and as the demands on us and our programs grow, we will burn faster.

Taking care of yourself can mean many things. Whether it means leaving school at 5:30 pm instead of 6:30 pm, building meditation or breathwork into your day, taking mental health days, or telling a student you cannot meet today, do it. Whatever taking care of yourself means to you, do it. And do it every day.

Take your own advice.

Has anyone ever really done this effectively? I’m not sure, but we should. We counsel our students on how to learn better, grow better, manage time, manage stress, and be better professionals. But, as they say, teachers are the worst students, and we often neglect our own advice in our own lives, to our detriment. Take your own advice and implement an organizational system, do not attempt to multitask, manage your time differently, go to that yoga class, take time to play with your dogs, go for a walk, disengage, turn the phone off and put it in a separate room, eat healthy and create a meal plan. Or just start with one of these things and go from there.

Be authentic.

The impulse to be what every student needs can be overwhelming, especially in programs where you are the sole ASP professional or one of a small group. This sometimes leads to people presenting a generic version of themselves. The intent is presumably to appeal to a wider audience, but it can instead read as disengagement from our work or performative engagement with students.

People are savvy and respond to authenticity. Authenticity can mean any number of things: empathy to students; having representations of your hobbies or interests in your office; or leading with honesty. Be professional and be yourself. Some students will be attracted to this, others might be repelled, but students trust someone they read as authentic more than a person they read as performative.

You cannot solve every problem.

Despite your authenticity and your best efforts, you will not be able to help every student. Some students do not want to be helped. Some are not able to receive it. Some decide they don’t need ASP so your advice isn’t really for them. Some may decide they don’t like you or are not interested in what you have to offer. These situations are disappointing, but inevitable. Do not take them personally, and do not hold yourself responsible for these students’ consequences.

Additionally, there will be some situations you simply cannot solve. Academically, a student might meet with you consistently but still perform poorly for a variety of reasons. They may have a self-defeating attitude that creates a selffulfilling prophesy, or not be totally honest with themselves or you about what they are struggling with or how or why they are struggling. We are not responsible for a student’s attitude or unwillingness to change, or one who tells us things are going fine and they understand what is going on when they don’t. What we can do is ask questions, provide tools for practice and support, and assess writings and hypos to gauge understanding. On occasion, I have even told a student that they are starting over—we are going to start over and approach law school or even our working relationship from the beginning to attempt to reset some of the challenges the student is facing. Our common practices are helpful with most students, but occasionally, there will be a student or two who seem impervious. Know that you have done all you can, but the final steps require the student’s own efforts.

Often, a student may be facing a personal or outside situation that you cannot solve. Law students across the country at all types of schools are facing food insecurity, home insecurity, financial insecurity, abuse or unhealthy family dynamics, mental health issues, substance abuse, or any number of other challenges. You will likely do all you can for these students: referring them to campus mental health services or perhaps a campus food bank, encouraging them to talk with others, and so on. Occasionally, you may want to offer a student even more—a ride, a safe space, basic necessities. Whether you do is up to you and the rules and culture of your institution (but please, always be safe). It can be difficult to not want to help, to get involved, or get invested, but there are many situations we just cannot solve.

These situations will present other challenges—the heartbreak or guilt of not doing something you have in your power to do, but that you cannot or should not do because it perhaps crosses a boundary or is unsafe. Find friends and colleagues to confide in and care for yourself. These will not take away all the challenges you will face, but they can be powerful balms.

You will make mistakes. Many of them.

You will make mistakes—probably a lot—and that is ok. Every person in this field can look back on a student, situation, class, workshop, email with a colleague, or meeting in which they should have said something differently (or said nothing at all), taken a different approach, or handled it differently. Just as we encourage our students to learn from their mistakes and carry that forward into “next time,” so should you. You may need to apologize to someone or take steps to repair the situation and that is ok. Learn from it, grow from it, reach out to mentors or peers to vent or get advice, and move forward.

Know your worth.

Finally, have confidence in your worth. You provide an invaluable service to your students and fill an important need for your institution. You matter. You matter as a person, as a professional, and as a colleague. While all institution’s politics vary, know your worth and that you matter—speak up when necessary, whether for your program, class, students, or yourself. Do not be afraid to say no. Do not be afraid to say yes. Do not be afraid to ask for help. Do not be afraid to ask for additional compensation. Do not be afraid to start a new project or program for your students. You matter and your voice matters.

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