Graduate-level Teaching Practices to Improve Leadership Skills

Nitish Ranjan Sarker, PhD (He/him)

Program Director IWA-YWP Canada

Postdoctoral Researcher, Centre for Global Engineering, University of Toronto

           The term ‘leadership’ is often misunderstood by many. It is not just about guiding a team to the glory of success; it is also about setting clear and functional goals for the team (and for self) and working diligently to accomplish those goals by inspiring the team members. The inspiration does not necessarily need to stem from holding a powerful position. A good leader would rather empower the team to pursue the objectives passionately.  Like all leaders, an educator sets specific learning objectives for the learners and motivates them to accomplish those. Thus, expanding on your experience as an educator could improve your leadership capabilities beyond an academic scenario. In becoming a sustainable water and energy researcher and an educator, I explored this hypothesis firsthand. Herein, I am sharing my insights on the concept of how you can unleash your leadership traits and inspire a new generation of future sustainability leaders through good pedagogical practices. 

           My proclivity toward teaching originated from my mentors and teachers’ extraordinary support and insights. Although I started as an educator in one of the most reputed universities in Bangladesh (my home country), my acquaintance with modern pedagogy began through teaching assistantships at top Canadian universities during my graduate studies abroad. During this period, I realized that education is no less than art, but you must indulge in it to feel that way. Working in such positions is amazing because, as a teaching assistant (TA), you get to work alongside a diverse group of stakeholders, i.e., professors and students from different backgrounds, and assist in mitigating the communication gap between them for better learning outcomes. Diligently working with a professor would allow you to understand the process of goal setting, decision-making, evaluation, and information delivery styles that suits the needs of every student attending the lecture. I should note that it is easy to get lost in the workload of a TA, given that you have your research to take care of simultaneously. However, my suggestion is to keep an exploratory mindset and try comprehending (and admiring) the amalgamation of time, experience, research, and strategic planning, which is happening at the backend to concoct an outstanding course curriculum and deliverables. These insights are one of the best leadership experiences you can achieve being a TA. At the delivery-side duties of a TA, you’ll also get the opportunity to improvise and explain challenging study materials in the classroom (and beyond) to bring the best out of every student. It is essential to realize that you are part of the ‘team Educator’. The students might see you as a dependable and resilient partner in communicating with the professor under any difficulties that may arise. Such engagement activities will improve your decisiveness, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills necessary for a great leader. Like me, if you are developing your teaching portfolio at a place different than where you grew up and completed most of your studies, these experiences might be even more rewarding than stated above. You are now in a strategic position to evaluate and reflect on the differences in pedagogical practices in different regions and can adopt the best approaches from your diversified experience. 

           Now, you may ask, ‘How do I tap into these skills or how do I strengthen them further?’ The answer is simple – you can utilize those in all aspects of your career advancement; the sky is the limit. I employed these traits in reaching out to environment, water, and sustainability-focused organizations and advocacy groups with a mindset of becoming an emerging leader in environmental protection and climate action. In those interactions, I embraced my weaknesses as my strength, which allowed me to retool myself as a confident, dynamic, and decisive person who is ready to inspire others. Contemplating several years of leadership and TA experiences, I also offered a course to senior year undergraduate and graduate students during my doctoral study to support the development of a new generation of sustainability-focused global engineers with good leadership skills. Through my instruction, I could only, theoretically, explain new concepts and information to students and teach them convergent thinking, i.e., how to use this information to reach a solution. Instead, I tried to create an environment of divergent thinking and creative analysis by engaging the students in group discussions, brainstorming sessions, and project-based experiential learning to assimilate the learning objectives better. It was a fantastic experience for me, and at the end of each semester, my confidence was boosted exponentially by looking at comments from my students like, ‘Quality was amazing, the professor was amazing, learned so much!’ or ‘You can tell the professor really cares about the course content and making sure that we all get to do and learn about what we are interested in.’

            Strong leadership is key to overcoming transnational sustainable development challenges, including zero poverty, water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH), water governance and infrastructure, sustainable cities, climate action, and decarbonization of the global economy. However, the enormous responsibility of leadership and the difficulty of connecting with peers to lead them are always challenging. Fortunately, every so often, many graduate students have the prospect of making breakthrough progress in improving their leadership skills by engaging in graduate-level teaching activities. History’s great leaders were also great teachers. So, why can’t we start as teachers and become the next generation of great leaders to build a better tomorrow?

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