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Building Stewardship

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Sarah Sweeney
October 23, 2019

Earlier this year I took a big risk and quit my job to pursue a dream of teaching in higher education. I’ve learned a great many things since taking the leap, hoping my net would appear, and am so glad that I did. Each moment I spend planning the next lecture, or choosing readings to share, is an absolute pleasure. I am grateful for the opportunity to create an intentional space for learning and am hopeful that whatever I say to these young people will inspire them to pursue their own passions in learning.

What I have learned in my short time as a lecturer is that we must be humble and always challenge ourselves to continually develop and transform. Twice a week I stand in front of 18 students who pay to learn about poverty and related topics from me. I’ve spent many years providing direct-practice social services to vulnerable clients here in Seattle and have come to realize that I have so much more to learn about the human condition, adult learning and challenging my own knowledge to become a better teacher. This has also given me a unique perspective within public administration and how to better inform tomorrow’s leaders through education.

In a New York Times Spotlight on Leaders article, the authors state that a leader’s role is to develop future vitality within an organization, and part of that involves the promotion of well being in that organization’s people.  I am passionate about professional development and encouraging my colleagues to do the same, and in this way teaching undergraduate students has fulfilled that passion. I tell my students they are the future and they will have the opportunity to make this world a much better place than we’ve done in the past. In the class we discuss how making changes to public policy can affect the future of our world and how we can all become agents of change.

When I consider the meaning of stewardship, I think about what sort of impact I can have on another person’s life and how building those skills to manage others and becoming a better leader can only bring more success to everyone involved. I believe we need more, “People builders,” those who are practicing in their field and are passionate about guiding the next generation of leaders. In an article from Forbes, Hansen outlines steps to developing talent in an organization and calls out to leaders to remain focused on delivering appropriate coaching and training necessary to retain good people. As it relates to my current role as an educator, I take to heart some of the recommendations for creating a culture of developing talent.

When acting as a role model to others, we must consider our own vulnerabilities. This has become more clear this quarter and I am constantly reminding myself to be true and honest to myself; to be authentic. Only then can I confidently say that I am mentoring my students toward finding their own voices. Authenticity is a delicate skill to build and doesn’t always come naturally since we are at times our own worst enemy when reviewing our own performance. I’ve allowed myself to constructively criticize me, and have even opened up the opportunity for students to provide feedback as well. The results were positive and affirming and I think I am doing an okay job because I allow myself grace to make mistakes and learn from them.

Reinforce the value that can be found in a learning environment and celebrate the little things. During our first class together, the students and I created a list of ground rules that we would refer back to as needed so that we could create a safe learning environment. I’ve discovered this has allowed everyone to participate in conversation without fear of retaliation or embarrassment. Many of our conversations have the capacity to become emotionally driven and everyone has their opinions and it seems they are all still finding their own voice and need to develop their skills at communicating effectively. When a student makes a statement that others disagree with, we’ve agreed to attack the idea not the person, and this has proven to be a useful tool.  We all make assumptions about what others’ intentions are when speaking, and communicating respectfully and without prejudice is a skill we are working on together.

Discuss and acknowledge shared values and reorient potential problems as possible opportunities to learn and grow. This is a skill that we will continue to grow as a class, because we are all still learning about each other and even finding our own voices. We must push ourselves to take those challenges in life, because only then will we really know our limits and capacity for knowledge and transformation. We must be inspired to develop the skills we need to put ourselves out there in taking chances, especially when there are no guarantees of a soft landing.  I am inspired each day by my students and the chance to be a steward in their learning. Hopefully they will some day pass along the knowledge and skills they’ve learned this quarter and through their own experiences.


Author: Sarah Sweeney is a professional social worker and recent graduate of Seattle University’s Master of Public Administration program in Washington State. She may be contacted at [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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