By David Unmacht
Sometime in the early 2000s, Metropolitan State University Professor Roger Israel came to my office at the Scott County Courthouse in Shakopee to learn about the organizational change that was occurring in the county. My recollection at the time was that, although we had met before, we didn’t know each other well. He was interested in learning more about the good works of the county, but he also came with an invitation. An invitation I was not expecting or ready for—at least at that time.
Roger’s invitation made me reflect on my career choice. In my family, we have more than our fair share of educators. Both my parents were teachers as was my mother-in-law. Two of my sisters-in-law, one brother-in-law, my daughter, a niece, and a nephew are all educators. After quickly dispensing with goals of police or fire careers (like most young kids), my plan was to be exactly like my dad—a teacher and coach.
In the 1960s, I vividly remember traveling on the bus with the football and track teams, sitting next to my dad and all these larger-than-life junior high school athletes. I still remember some of their names and, in fact, one of his students is the long-serving mayor of my hometown, Dubuque, Iowa.
On that day in the early 2000s, Roger asked if I would like to become an adjunct faculty member at Metro State. He didn’t come hat in hand with a course or a syllabus, but his ask was like fishing. He dropped his well-baited hook in the water to see what he might catch. Well, fish weren’t biting that day.
But my relationship with Roger grew over time, and the invitation remained for years. At various times when we were conversing about subjects long lost to history, he would often end our conversation with, “You know, whenever you are ready.” He didn’t have to finish the point; I knew what he meant. In 2010, I called Roger and said, “I’m ready now.” His response was, “Finally! That’s fantastic. Now, what are you going to teach?”
Roger encouraged me to create my own courses, and so I did. In the fall of 2011, I realized my goal of being an educator. For the past five years, alternating each fall, I’ve taught two graduate-level elective courses. The first is Managing and Leading Organizational Change in the Public and Non-Profit Sectors, and the second is Strategies for Alternative Service Delivery in the Public and Non- Profit Sectors.
In late 2015, my friend and mentor, Craig Waldron, who is a well-known and respected retired city administrator turned professor, asked me to join the faculty at Hamline University. So, in the spring I began teaching a master’s degree course called Professional Ethics. All three courses are a great fit for my work with the League and Minnesota city governments.
Why, you may ask, do I spend a good share of my limited free time in a classroom or in an online discussion?
First, I am energized by the interaction that occurs with students. When having a conversation with students on change,ethics, or the future of cities, the depth and breadth of discussion is outstanding. The classroom does not look or feel like it did during my day. Today’s classroom is a mirror of society—a reflection of the diverse ethnicities and changing demographics we see in our communities.
Second, I have stories to share. Over 33 years of municipal government work with varying positions and experiences provides a wonderful mix of personal and professional lessons. In five years, I have found one absolute of teaching, and that is that graduate students absolutely love stories, examples, and real-life experiences. A textbook is not needed to learn.
Finally, I have something to learn. No matter what age or level of experience, we all need to be continuous learners. There isn’t a term paper I read, a conversation I lead, or a challenging question I receive that doesn’t support my own education and drive me to be the best executive director of the League of Minnesota Cities that I can be.
Thank you, Roger Israel and Craig Waldron, for giving me the chance to fulfill my dream—even if it took 50 years.
David Unmacht is executive director of the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or (651) 281-1205.
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