In this series, guest columnists respond to one of three questions posed by ELGL Co-Founder Kent Wyatt. This week, Cassie Johnson, Senior Police Analyst, City of Scottsdale, Arizona, reflects on the impact of teaching.
Teaching is in my bones. So much so, that when I was a toddler, I climbed up behind the podium and, while my mom set up her classroom for the fall, I welcomed an imaginary class in the exact same way she routinely did. I went on to spend many summers and after-school hours “at home” in her classroom.
Even with the career choices I’ve made, I always knew I wanted to teach. Something. To someone. I always thought it would be a “next chapter”, so though not sure when, not sure what level…I was confident that it would eventually happen. That opportunity came earlier than I envisioned from the School of Public Affairs at Arizona State University. I have taught students in topics such as public governance, leadership, organizational culture, creating positive social change, and public service ethics. My students routinely share the value that they feel my experience as a practitioner brings to the classroom and to their learning. Yet what I find to be truly significant is the impact my students have on me and my day-job as a police analyst.
Maximize the power of diversity. I have taught a wide array of students, largely in part to the nature of my evening or online classes. All ages, identities, political ideologies, and socioeconomic backgrounds. I’ve taught students from all over the world, many of which have already had full careers in some specialty. This includes active duty military, private business leaders, police officers, Starbucks employees, nonprofit leaders, local elected officials, firefighters, law clerks, student workers, and so many with other experiences. Each of them has a personal story rooted in their own experience that they bring to the classroom. By providing everyone a shared safe space to connect and engage, we all learn from one another as we apply the core concepts of the class. My classes are a small sample of our communities in which we serve, and I use our interactions to gain better insight into their understanding of what we do, what they need, and how they want to interact with local government.
Be open to new interpretations. Sometimes reading the same passage over and over again could feel like Groundhog Day. But in every assignment, my students will take a passage I’ve read a dozen times and flip it with some new experience that I never would have imagined. They are drawn to a sentence that maybe hasn’t resonated with me before. Through their lens, I re-read the passage from a whole new perspective, and suddenly it has an entirely new impact on my own understanding of the topic. I have become more intentional in taking a similar approach in my everyday duties. In my career as analyst, I’m often presenting ideas or reporting my findings to others. Recognizing the value of others’ experiences, asking colleagues to read and share what they take away from a topic, or re-reading something and evaluating it from another perspective prevents me from becoming siloed by my own initial reactions.
Find a mentor. And even more importantly, BE a mentor. Truth be told, my side-gig as a teacher is largely in part to the many amazing mentors I’ve had in my life. And even more so, my success at being a fairly okay teacher (a favorite “ratemyprofessor” response reminds me that ‘I’m nothing too extraordinary’) is because I’ve been surrounded by amazing teachers my entire life. Yet, stepping into the front of a classroom made me hyper-aware of the significant role I was taking by becoming a faculty associate for my alma matter. I am a mentor, whether formal or informal, to my students. I’m there to support them in their education, sure. But I sincerely believe that I also have a responsibility to set them up for success outside of just learning and knowing things. I do my best to emphasize this commitment to them for their futures and make myself available to answer questions, write letters of recommendation, or just be someone to talk to when needed. Being a teacher has made me a more intentional listener, a more compassionate person, and a more open-minded confidant. I hope that, in that process, I have also become a better employee, a better colleague, and a better mentor, both to my students and to others outside of the classroom.
Be yourself. I’ve never shied away from being my authentic self in front of the room (despite significant self-doubt that sometimes lies just under the surface). Let’s be real here…I’m still early enough in my career, that on that first night of class — or in front of a conference or meeting space — some might question my ability to be in that space. But I haven’t let that impact my ability to do what I am there to do, teach what I know and bring my own experiences to the lesson. Ultimately, and occasionally begrudgingly, people listen and realize that they can learn from my being there. Through the process, I also hope that they’ll see that it’s totally okay to be your own unique self in a setting that might not always seem like it’s designed for you.
My hope is that when my students move on from my class, I have contributed something positive to their lives, whether it be a topic that they’ll refer back to in their futures, a habit of self-reflection, or a reminder to celebrate the little wins along the way. Regardless of my impact on my students, I take the lessons they have taught me and weave them throughout my everyday life – both personally and professionally.
All thoughts expressed in this post are those of the author independently and do not reflect the views and opinions of their employer.