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To Teach or Not To Teach—Insights from a Practitioner Instructor

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

By Stephen G. Harding
December 21, 2018

Where To Start?

“this guide is not a reference source to the literature on effective teaching. It is, rather, a place to start preparing to teach.”


Preface to the 2nd Edition, “Managers as Teachers”

Nearly everything a would-be practitioner instructor needs to contemplate about teaching public administration at the university level can be found in the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) publication, Managers as Teachers: A Practitioner’s Guide to Teaching Public Administration 3rd Edition. It is an A-Z overview from how to get that first assignment to course development, delivery methods, time commitments and compensation. I recommend reading it in total including the appendices. However, before going to far, I would suggest you give substantial thought to the five following sections of the Guide:

  • Forward To The 3rd Edition (by Raymond W. Cox III, Ph.D.)
  • Why Managers Should Teach
  • Things to Think About
  • Preparing Students For The Real World
  • Academic Miscellany

Beyond the mechanics of teaching, these areas provide substance to the reasons why one should or should not teach. Still as important, these focus areas provide a glimpse, and really just a glimpse, into the culture of the academy and the students of today. If your last contact with higher education was as a student or a brush with the system as a guest lecturer, you may find the educational environment to be different from what you remember. By focusing on both the pluses and the minuses, each apprentice adjunct should be equipped to enter this realm with his/her eyes wide open.

 Why Teach Seems Obvious—Why Not Teach, Well—

Practicing managers are needed and wanted in the classroom. Who can better add a touch of reality to a public administration education than those currently in practice?


Raymond W. Cox, III Ph.D.

Professor Cox’s Forward and the section entitled “Why Managers Should Teach” may be just enough to get you into the lecture hall. As to the question “Why Not,” the answer needs to be more contemplative. The following outline developed by the Cal-ICMA Encore Committee should help:

Reasons Why You May Not Want to Teach

  • Teaching is time-consuming–developing a curriculum, reviewing the literature, preparing lectures, grading papers, and meeting with students.
  • While some early- and mid-career students are highly focused, it is sometimes difficult motivating students who are working professionals and have worked all-day, rushed to class after work, and are tired.
  • Some students may focus more on grades than learning.
  • Teaching requires that you deal with another bureaucracy and another set of “politics.”
  • One has to adjust to a loss of status—from senior executive to lowly adjunct faculty.
  • Universities provide minimal assistance and training.
  • It does not pay well (as opposed to interim management or consulting).

I would say yes to each and then some. Here are some additional thoughts:

For You the Apprentice Instructor

  • Above all, understand your core motivation in wanting to teach. Be candid with yourself. Do you truly want to assist the next generation of public servants or is it more about you? By intention or not, for some it is somewhat self-serving. It’s about personal marketing and resume building. For still others this is a route to membership in the academy. Regardless, be clear in your intent. Your students deserve the best of you.
  • Are you ready to be a university instructor? As a practitioner, you are primarily being considered for the classroom because of your experience and success in the field. Depending upon the relevance of your professional acumen, having a doctorate degree may or may not have an influence. Truly ask yourself as to your own level of competency in comparison to the standards of your chosen profession. How do you stack up with your peers? Have you faced truly complex challenges? Has the “Buck” actually stopped with you? I would only suggest that titles alone are not validations of wisdom or make one an expert. As a practitioner instructor, you are in the classroom because of your accumulated maturity, practical expertise, and your ability to convey knowledge in an effective manner.
  • Depending on how long you’ve been away from the classroom, you may be surprised as to three incrementally changing trends:
    • The TED TALK entertainment style of teaching is becoming more prevalent
    • In general, and regardless of age, a growing proportion of students are becoming more rude
    • The majority of today’s students have had little to no exposure to courses in government, history or the concept of civics.
    • Focusing in either the public or non-profit sectors, most students still profess a strong desire to serve

For You Members of the Academy (And Some Practitioners)

For those that still do, I would suggest stopping the overt and covert practitioner versus academician debate. It serves no purpose. Better time spent helping practitioners with the necessary pedagogy to be better instructors. We have the same goal, to assist the next generation of public servants. Practitioners are not “Adjunct” as the definition suggests. We are partners. We do not have to be in the classroom. We are there because we want to be. It’s just too important.


Author: Stephen G. Harding has served as an adjunct instructor for more than 15 years. Overlapping the last eleven of his 38-year public/private sector career, he has taught 50 courses for nearly 1,000 post-graduate students at five universities. As a city manager, executive director or corporate vice president, he has provided managerial, organizational and economic development advisory services to 60 client agencies. He 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.

One Response to To Teach or Not To Teach—Insights from a Practitioner Instructor

  1. Pete Pointner Reply

    December 22, 2018 at 1:49 pm

    Useful and well written. I may be teaching public administration grad students about urban planning this summer. The university has a detailed syllabus I feel comfortable working with. I will also draw on my experience to hopefully make the topics more interesting for the students and will generate lively discussions. Thanks for the post.

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