Teaching HR highly recommended

But be prepared for heavy workload, warns George Brown College professor

As a human resources professor at George Brown College in Toronto, Susan Lewis would definitely recommend the teaching profession — and she has no plans to return to her previous role as an HR professional, despite a 25-year career.

“It’s a different level of decision-making that you have (in HR) — and I miss that — but it’s fast-paced. You’ve got to move very, very quickly,” she says.

“On the other hand, we have some wonderful students and it’s so satisfying when you have a class and you know you’ve gotten through and people have talked and participated, and hopefully you’ve gotten them excited about something. So it’s a completely different level of satisfaction.”

Lewis’ professional career began with a bachelor of arts followed by a certificate in personnel and industrial relations and then a master of industrial relations, completed over five years in the 1990s while she was working.

“At that point, it didn’t necessarily make a huge difference for my career but I felt, certainly down the road… I had it in the back of my mind if I ever wanted to teach, I would need at least a master’s,” she says.

Lewis originally worked for the federal government for seven years, handling staffing and recruiting, and then worked at the National Bank of Canada for about three years in a broader HR role. Contract work with the provincial and federal governments followed, and then came a nine-year stint at the Toronto Police Service.

It was after that, when she was consulting for about five years, that Lewis saw an ad for a part-time teaching position for labour relations. It was the right time and the right fit, she says, and Lewis found herself teaching two courses at George Brown College.

Ironically, in the first six months, there was a faculty strike.

“That was my introduction — teaching labour relations and they were on strike,” she says.

Fortunately, another position soon came up and Lewis began teaching full time. Previously, her teaching experience included seminars on topics such as occupational health and safety or employment equity, or lectures and workshops at the police college.

“What I had not done was teaching students and evaluating them, which was really a big difference,” she says.

While the school offered some informal training to help her get started, Lewis took it upon herself to talk to colleagues about what was required and what she needed to know.

“Certainly I think because of my experience, when a lot of new teachers... ask for some help, I’ll sit down with them and I’ll run through that,” she says, adding there are now some guidelines and policy procedures to help people get started. “I found that to be one of the bigger challenges.”

But it’s hard for a person to be fully prepared when he starts, says Lewis.

“You never get your course where you want it the first time around, so you have to go through, I would say, two or three cycles before you really feel that it’s where you might want. And you constantly change it and revise it. For me, it was sort of really making that switch to make sure the classes were more interactive, a lot more hands-on, (with) a lot more involvement of the students.”

The classes are three hours long, with two 10-minute breaks, so that’s a long session to keep people engaged, she says, adding she tries to keep it varied and provide examples to keep the content interesting.

As for the work outside of class, such as being accessible to students, Lewis says she hasn’t found that difficult because of her background in HR, when people issues were always coming up.

But there are challenges, such as the struggles educational institutions have with integrity and plagiarism, which “can sometimes put you into tense situations,” she says.

However, a background in human resources has been a huge advantage.

“It’s not a textbook subject… I know how it’s applied, I know examples or issues that happened to me and I can relate to it in that way,” says Lewis, citing as an example the recent teacher strike in Toronto. “I can apply some of that from an HR perspective, a labour relations perspective. Sometimes, a textbook is a textbook — sometimes they can be dry.”

Lewis also has to adjust the coursework as she teaches both in diploma and post-graduate programs, with different levels of preparedness and knowledge among the students.

“In a post-graduate program, many have already worked, they’re highly motivated in the program — I’m not saying the others aren’t — but it just lends to a different kind of discussion in the classroom, as it did for me, when I went back and I had worked in the field. So whatever was being taught, I had a different perspective.”

And while Lewis would definitely recommend teaching for HR professionals, they should not underestimate how much work is involved.

“It’s not like, ‘Oh, you know HR, so you’re just going to get up and talk for three hours’ — especially the first time you’re teaching a course. You have to invest significantly in developing that course,” she says.

There may be a textbook or PowerPoint presentation already provided, but if a person really wants to make a go of it, she has to put up that time and effort upfront.

“I don’t know how you short-circuit that. And certainly, even administratively, there’s a lot of details, there’s a real learning curve, so you have to go into it knowing that those are like paying your dues or learning the ropes or whatever, and it’s a longer-term investment,” says Lewis.

The hours involved can really vary, she says, based on factors such as teaching experience, whether there’s a new textbook for the course and how many students are involved. This semester, for example, Lewis has two post-graduate classes with 44 students in each, and two diploma classes with 33 in each. So that can involve a lot of marking at certain times of the year, during evenings and weekends.

However, as full-time faculty, Lewis has two months’ vacation and she is usually able to take these in July and August.

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