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How to teach excellence in public service

Classes start today in many of the nation's top public-service schools. Students are ready to learn, and have high expectations.

And yet the public-service market couldn't be worse. The federal government is hiring, but state and local governments are pretty much closed for the duration of the jobless recovery. Some of the big nonprofits are hiring, but most are still cutting. As for social responsibility among corporations, forget about it. Most have been cut to the bone or completely eliminated in the search for bottom-line savings.

All of us are professors to some extent, of course. Executives, managers and colleagues all have an obligation to teach. So what should professors do to make their classes more useful in this difficult climate? Consider the following list as a start:

1. Review the constitution. We have an obligation to faithfully execute the laws, even the ones we detest. We don't have a choice. President George W. Bush issued more signing statements than any president in history, refusing to execute pieces of the laws he was signing. But public servants don't have that choice. They must either execute the laws, change them, or leave. Every course on public service should start with a quick review of the constitution. It is often ignored as the governing framework for making a difference.

2. Make it real. Less abstraction, more links to reality. These students are motivated to make a difference. Show them how.

3. Get out of the classroom. See the world in action. If all you're doing is hanging around the office, you're wasting time. Go interview someone. Find out how they tick, what keeps them going.

4. Do something yourself. Engage. Write for a wider audience. Pick an issue and drive it home. Volunteer. Anything. Get real yourself!

5. Declare yourself. Stand for something. Don't impose your ideology, but help your students connect through you and with you on problems that matter.

6. Encourage dissent. Let the students speak out, but set a tone for civil discourse amid strong points of view. Don't hold the reins too tight.

7. Embrace the diversity in your classrooms. Many professors are now fifty-something white guys who were educated in mostly white-male cohorts. The classroom has changed dramatically. More women, students of color, international perspectives, sexual orientations, and views are at hand. Learn how to deal with it.

8. Give up the search for absolute truths. Challenge your own conventional wisdom about how the world works. Show the different sides of reality. Drop the one-size-fits-all approach (unless you're doing statistics and public finance; there's no wiggle room on how to do a linear regression right.)

9. Stop promoting a single career path. Your students will change jobs many times during their careers. Give them the tools to span the boundaries between the sectors. Encourage your students to make a difference wherever they go. Remember that they are paying huge sums to take your classes--don't shame them for needing to make a buck. Make sure they choose paths that will allow them to use their talents well. No sector has first refusal anymore.

10. Talk about power. It exists and shapes everything that your students will do. Help them understand politics, accept partisanship and embrace the need for a good fight every once in a while.

11. Focus on the urgency of change. The world can't wait much longer for engagement. Students need to be patient as they move ahead, but tell them what they can do now to create durable social change. Encourage them to collaborate; get them off the pronoun "I" and the search for self aggrandizement.

12. Give them the basic skills to succeed. Teach them how to write, speak, persuade, navigate and handle uncertainty. And don't coddle them. Set high expectations; there is no reason why social change should be sloppy, undisciplined, or casual. Show them that you take your teaching seriously, and help them take their studies seriously too.

13. Always talk about purpose. Honor what the students want to do, force them to ask hard questions about their own reasons for pursuing public service, encourage faith in the possible and celebrate the work that others have already done. Show your students that change can happen, then teach them how to do it again and again and again. And make sure they understand that nothing is permanent--they must understand the past and understand the great achievements already made, even as they seek to remake the future.

This is a time of great hope and promise, and these students are going to be on the front lines of higher performance and innovation. Professors need to provide the skills to succeed. And they need to accept the call to excellence in their own classrooms. Continuous improvement is the watch word. We must make every effort to serve the talent in our classrooms so they can serve their communities, nations and world.

By Paul Light

 |  September 8, 2010; 8:56 AM ET |  Category:  Education leadership , Federal government leadership , Public leadership , Young leaders Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Make it Easier to Say "Yes" to Social Change in Government | Next: Senior Executive Service: The key to real reform

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