“Assessing Ourselves” by Kate McGartland-Kinsella

Assessment continues to be an important part of our practice in student affairs.  We use assessment data to inform our work, to provide proof of positive impact and to benchmark against other programs or institutions.  It is rare, however, for us to assess ourselves – to really take stock of everything in our lives and assess if it is serving or hurting us, and make decisions to enhance, revamp, or overhaul parts of us.

This time of year is ideal for reflecting and planning.  After all, that’s what many of us are doing at work.  We are reflecting on the year by reviewing what went well, what we will do differently next time and what we will continue to do.  We are using these reflections to plan for the year ahead, and map out our programs and services for students.

This time of year is also ideal for reflecting on our own personal and professional journeys.  Too often, we are so caught up in the day-to-day things that make up life that we don’t take the time to evaluate and reflect upon the experiences we had and the choices we made.  If assessment is essential in our work as student affairs practitioners – to continue to provide exceptional service and experiences for our students – then it should also be essential in our own lives as well – to ensure we’re living our best possible life.

I will admit it, I do not love reflection activities that force me to talk about how I feel (that’s the T in my ENTJ shining through), but I do know that it is important for me to understand what makes me happy – and what does not.  I also need to know why these things make me happy or unhappy; otherwise it will be impossible to assess what to keep, what to change and what to discard. This means being okay with asking hard questions and potentially discovering difficult answers.

Since entering my thirties, I have become much more conscious of the impact of my decisions.  This is not to say that I was careless in my twenties, but I now think more long term, consider the return on my investments and am more comfortable letting go of the things that do not serve me.  I have a much better understanding of what I want in life, and what I don’t want.  I do think this comes with experience and learning from life’s lessons, but I also think it can be achieved through reflection and assessment – and that can happen at any age.

Last year, I was chosen to take part in the extended interviews that Statistics Canada conducts.  One of the questions asked was: “On a scale of 1-10, how satisfied are you with your life?”  I asked the interviewer to clarify if she meant in my personal relationships, my career, my financial situation, my health or in another area.  Her response was simply: “Overall.”  That was an “a-ha” moment for me.  I cannot compartmentalize my life, and what happens in one area impacts every other area on some level.  If I am not satisfied with my career, then it will affect my personal relationships.  If I am not satisfied with my health, then it will impact my career, and so on.  I am one whole person, not multiple versions of myself.

This reminded me of an exercise I once did with a student staff team that was struggling with team dynamics.  I asked them: “On a scale of 1-10, one being completely dysfunctional and 10 being highly effective, where is our team right now?” I had them write their answers on little pieces of paper, crumple them up, and toss them in to a box.  Next, I asked them: “On a scale of 1-10, one being completely dysfunctional and 10 being highly effective, where would you like our team to be?”  Again, they wrote their answers on pieces of paper, folded them, and placed them in another box.  We went through the responses to the original question first.  I believe the average was a seven.  For the second question, the average response was a 10.  I then facilitated a conversation about what we needed to do as a team to move from a 7/10 to a 10/10.  After that exercise, the level of commitment significantly increased and the team dynamic dramatically shifted.  I look back on that staff team as one of the most cohesive, supportive and loyal that I have worked with to date.

We need to do this kind of exercise for ourselves.  On a scale of 1-10, consider how satisfied you are with your life, with one being completely dissatisfied and 10 being completely satisfied.  Then consider how satisfied you would like to be with your life.  How can you close the gap if there is a discrepancy between those two numbers?

A fantastic tool is Harter & Rath’s (2010) book, Well Being: The Five Essential Elements.  This book and assessment comes from Gallup (the folks who brought us StrengthsFinder 2.0 and Strengths Based Leadership) and speaks to five areas of wellbeing: Career, Social, Financial, Physical and Community Wellbeing.  Like StrengthsFinder, this book comes with an assessment tool, the Wellbeing Finder.  Upon completion, you receive an overall wellbeing score as well as scores in each of the five areas of wellbeing.  The book provides an overview of each area and presents you with ideas on how to improve your wellbeing score in each area.  It is a great place to start if you are interested in assessing where you are now and what you can do to get to where you want to be.  The caveat is that this is a lifelong process.  It is near impossible to make drastic changes overnight.  We need to start with small steps.

To help get you started I would like to suggest some guiding questions.  Take some time to reflect upon your answers, and try to get to the why of each response.

Thinking back over the last 12 months;

  • What accomplishment am I most proud of?
  •  What is the one thing I wish I could go back and do again?
  • What was the most effective personal or professional development opportunity I took part in?
  • When did I take sick days? Was there a trend?
  • When did I feel angry? What brought it on?
  • What fear(s) did I overcome?
  • What relationship(s) supported me and helped me to grow?
  • What relationship(s) did not serve me?
  • When did I feel most at peace?
  • What goals did I achieve?

When reviewing your responses, consider the positive and negative aspects.  How will you ensure the positives persist and what steps will you take to eradicate the negative influences? As 21st century North-American women, we have the ability to make choices and decisions for ourselves, a privilege not afforded to every woman in the world or to our own predecessors.  We wouldn’t make uneducated decisions at work – decisions that impact the lives of our students.  Why should we make uninformed decisions with our lives?

For more information about Well Being: The Five Essential Elements, visit the official website: http://www.wbfinder.com/home.aspx


Kate McGartland-Kinsella is the Student Development Officer for Student Life Programs at the University of Toronto Mississauga.  You can connect with her on Twitter @KateMcGK




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4 responses to ““Assessing Ourselves” by Kate McGartland-Kinsella

  1. Kate, you’re a mind reader! I was just having a conversation with a student about this topic over lunch. It’s unfortunately quite common for us (myself very much included) to get caught up in the day to day, to idolize the ‘busy’ and focus on ‘what’s next’ rather than celebrating ‘what’s now’. In talking with this student and sharing these same ideas, I realized I also need to work on taking in the moment and pausing to be intentionally grateful. I think part of our well being comes from being consciously and repeatedly grateful for what we do have, instead of always focusing on what we don’t have (yet). Thank you for the beautiful reminder – and I might steal that team building exercise too! 😉

    • Thanks for reading and replying, Lisa. I’m glad that this resonated with you. “What’s now” and “what’s next” are both important, but it is interesting how much emphasis we place on the latter. And we’re taught to do this from an early age. How often do we ask our graduates “what are your plans after graduation?” rather than “how are you celebrating all of your accomplishments?”

  2. Great post! This is a classic example of what we preach to our students but fail to practice as student affairs professionals. Also another example of how we should apply the techniques and processes from our profession to our personal lives (something that I struggle with). I needed this reminder as I think about where I am in my career and how I can maximize each day without thinking about the “next step”. Thank you for your insight as I strive to be honest about what’s working, what needs to change and what I am missing in order to be my best self, in all areas of my life.

    • Thanks for reading and sharing your experience, Brandy. I would love to hear how you are going to discover what’s working, and what needs changing. While we all might approach this a little differently, it would be great to hear others’ success stories, and strategies. Keep in touch!

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