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The Scholar-Practitioner Approach to Teaching: A Criminal Justice Professor’s Perspective

By Dr. Michael Pittaro, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice at American Military University

I started my criminal justice career back in 1989 after graduating from college with a Bachelor of Science degree in criminal justice and continued working in the field, predominantly within corrections administration, up until 2010. In early 2010, I decided to embark on a second career benefitting from what I had learned “on the job” and during my undergraduate and doctorate programs. I had started teaching part-time back in 2002 as simply another source of residual income to supplement my full-time income, but after teaching my first class (Introduction to Criminal Justice) and receiving feedback from my students and superiors, I realized how much I truly enjoyed teaching. I encourage others to think about following this “scholar-practitioner” track.

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To me, teaching is and always will be a rewarding career. Unlike many private-sector business positions, which typically pay more and in which exemplary work is often tied to some type of tangible monetary reward or incentive, the rewards associated with teaching are mostly internal and tied to favorable emotions such as satisfaction, fulfillment, happiness, and contentment (to name a few). Simply stated, there is no greater feeling than knowing that you played a small, yet hopefully essential role, in shaping someone’s life.

The Impact of a Good Teacher

Since 2002, I have taught at a number of universities (online and face-to-face) and something I’ve noticed over the years is that there are essentially two types of educators. There are those who tend to complain, or whine if you will, and grumble about their students, their colleagues, the administration, and the policies that need to be followed.

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Then there are those educators who clearly exude passion and fervency within their lectures, emphasize the importance of lifelong learning both in and out of the classroom, and take a vested interest in the personal and professional successes of their students and colleagues. These are the educators who find immense purpose and meaning in their careers. Students can and will quickly gauge a professor’s level of interest and enthusiasm in their classes within the initial weeks of the semester.

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Students represent a large subculture within the university environment and their views of a professor can be quite powerful. They will advise their peers as to which professors should be pursued and which professors should be avoided. Moreover, in today’s digital age, their discontent with a professor will often find its way to social media, which can tarnish the program and university. Of course, this is not unique to higher education and likely present in most, if not all, professions.

Bringing Practical Experience into the Classroom

I have found that students tend to gravitate toward registering for classes in which the professor has had lengthy “on-the-job” experience and held leadership positions within the field. We refer to an individual who has practical experience, as well as a terminal degree, as a scholar-practitioner. They “have been there, done that” and are now sharing those experiences with their students, breaking down the dichotomy that has traditionally existed between those who study crime and offenders and those who work directly in the area.

A criminal justice scholar-practitioner not only brings in “real-world,” “real-life” stories, but also provides helpful career support and guidance that, for the most part, would be difficult to articulate in a textbook. For example, how to testify in court—what to say and what not to say, how to dress, and how to handle an attorney’s line of questioning, particularly if the questioning is perceived as a personal/professional attack on your credibility. In addition, the criminal justice scholar-practitioner often has administrative experience from their leadership positions during their careers. Therefore, they can provide first-hand insight and direction in what it takes to move up the proverbial ladder of success.

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The role of the scholar-practitioner is not just to teach the foundational material associated with the career, but also to create future leaders who possess strong interpersonal skills, exceptional critical thinking and analytical skills, solid ethical insight and professionalism, and the ability to manage internal and external conflict. The scholar-practitioner’s goal is to combine and apply research, theory, and practice in order to advance the profession. Such scholarship can be used to legitimize evidence-based best practices or to justify initiatives, advocate for important resources, and validate or negate findings.

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When you have a professor who embraces the scholar-practitioner approach, you have someone who is in constant dialogue with his or her inner-scholar and his or her inner-practitioner. The convergence of the scholar and practitioner mindsets helps to create informed criminal justice practices, policies, decisions, and services that will ultimately advance the criminal justice profession.

scholar-practitionerAbout the AuthorDr. Michael Pittaro is an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice in the School of Security and Global Studies (SSGC) with American Military University and an Adjunct Professor at East Stroudsburg University. Dr. Pittaro is a criminal justice veteran, highly experienced in working with criminal offenders in a variety of institutional and non-institutional settings.

Before pursuing a career in higher education, Dr. Pittaro worked in corrections administration; has served as the Executive Director of an outpatient drug and alcohol facility and as Executive Director of a drug and alcohol prevention agency. Dr. Pittaro has been teaching at the university level (online and on-campus) for the past 15 years while also serving internationally as an author, editor, presenter, and subject matter expert. Dr. Pittaro holds a BS in Criminal Justice; an MPA in Public Administration; and a PhD in criminal justice. To contact the author, please email

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