Acquiring and transferring knowledge is a fluid, dynamic process. Teaching and learning is not about dusty books or dry lectures but about the movement of ideas. It is about eros and logos and a bit of pathos. And like the piles of books, it is a bit precarious and could topple at any time. But when you have caught the attention of the students, when their faces reveal their excitement as the ideas take hold, there is nothing more satisfying.
This is my twentieth year of teaching. What is important is the future not the past. Students have changed over that time and I have changed my teaching techniques to adapt to this new and vibrant culture. And so I would like to share some observations about students today and what you can expect as they enter the public sector or your classrooms.
Students today are innovative, effective, creative. To give you but one example: when the Public Health Agency came to me in December two years ago and asked if I would complete a project on the impact of voluntary organizations on healthcare in Canada by April, I declined owing to other commitments. When they persisted, I suggested putting together a team of five carefully chosen students to do the work under my supervision. They agreed but hesitated – until I showed them the resumes of the students. When I asked the students, four were positive but the fifth declined since he wanted to concentrate on his courses – so I combined the research work with a reading course.
In our first meeting, the five students and I designed the course consisting of a reading list, a mid-term report and a final report. Each week we met and discussed what we had read and what were the necessary next research steps including interviews with experts across Canada and in other countries. The team thought of new and excellent sources and put enthusiasm and energy into the work.
The midterm report was done and submitted to PHAC. In a conference call, PHAC officials gave their feedback directly to our team. The students had a taste of public sector life firsthand. Towards the conclusion, I drew comments together and set a direction for our work. The students, a bit despondent, perked up when they saw the means to move ahead. That night I had them to my home for supper to allow them to react and, yes, vent. Without that informal meeting, I am not sure how they would have handled the second and more arduous task of putting together the final report. This crop of new public servants needs to express feelings as part of their commitment because they give so much of themselves.
They rose to the challenge, producing a final document that PHAC was happy to receive. It was posted on the PHAC website and PHAC offered two follow-up contracts.
Reflecting back, the students loved the process and were happy to have gone through even the painful midterm review – they learned about expectations, how to react to challenges and gained confidence. They inspired and encouraged each other when the going got tough or they met a research wall. They learned to receive constructive criticism and to defend their work when necessary. And we had fun.
Expect that this new generation will want to be challenged and respected, and will cherish their independence. In those conditions, they will demonstrate their full potential and your projects can only benefit.
Students today expect us, their mentors, to engage them and show our dedication as well.
When the School of Policy Studies did not offer a course on citizen engagement three years ago, seven students came to me and asked me to supervise them in a reading course. For no remuneration or credit, I agreed. It turned out to be one of my most inspiring teaching experiences. Their energy, creativity and dedication meant I learned so much more about citizen engagement than if I had designed the course. Because they knew I was doing the course for their benefit, they worked even harder. Every class was a treat.
Expect to be challenged by this new cohort of students and public servants. What you give, they will give back twice.
And these students expect respect, dignity and professionalism. At the beginning of each course, I ask them what they want or do not want from the course. One recurring comment is that they do not want to be embarrassed or treated dismissively. Respect is key. Treat every question and comment seriously – look for the gold among the dross of words. They do not want over-direction or “small” rules. They will make those decisions themselves. Set expectations clearly and stand by them. Show compassion when appropriate and firmness (not harshness) when necessary. Explain the whys. They will want to know why you are asking them to do something.
And above all, they want honesty and authenticity. At the beginning of each course I allow the students a one-time opportunity to ask me any question. They watch my answers for authenticity and will often reflect back on that moment later.
These students and future public servants want honesty, dignity, professionalism and the ability to live their dreams. They will want their work to be meaningful. Respect them and they will more than meet your highest expectations and take you along with them.
Kathy L. Brock is a professor in the School of Policy Studies at Queen’s University. She received IPAC’s 2008 Pierre De Celles Teaching Award. This article adapted from her comments to IPAC (firstname.lastname@example.org).