The Scholar Practitioner: A Thoughtful Force, A Force for Change

The Scholar Practitioner: A Thoughtful Force, A Force for Change

Many of us in the University of Phoenix doctoral community have recently been involved in discussions regarding the scholar practitioner doctoral program within the School of Doctoral Studies. It seems to me that the Research Hub and the research teams operating through its several Research Centers and Special Interest Groups directly support this academic practitioner focus.  A few years ago I retired as a middle school principal.  In a career that spanned 37 years, I served my local public school system in various additional roles, including assistant principal, district supervisor, and English teacher. In each of those positions I was absolutely a practitioner, albeit hopefully a thoughtful one. It was only when I began work on a dissertation during my principalship that I applied focused scholarly reflection to my role as a school leader.

After much angst and thrashing about, I discovered autoethnography as a method I could use to combine reflection, scholarship, and practical application under one framework. This is not an argument for autoethnography per se as a dissertation research method. It is, however, a justification for a scholar practitioner program. I don’t think the work I did as a school principal could have, or at least would have, been performed as effectively by an administrative manager.  The discipline and rigor of advanced research and scholarship helped me frame theoretically and reflectively what I did, why I did it, and how I might guide others on the same path.

I am honored to work with several research teams comprised of members of the University of Phoenix Research Hub.  These researchers are now or have been practitioners. We all consider ourselves scholar practitioners.  Our academic focus enables us to view our work and experiences through a more reflective and conversely more objective lens. As practitioners we always ask ourselves these important questions: Why do we need to know this? What does it matter? Who cares?  A scholar practitioner focus allows us to probe and hopefully answer these questions. 

In one of my current roles, I serve as one of several alternative placement hearing officers for a local school district. I and my colleagues review judgments made by school principals.   The determination is whether, following a significant discipline infraction, a student returns to his or her assigned school or is assigned an alternate educational setting.  In making these judgements, thoughtful leaders balance the care of the individual against the needs of the group. They attempt to balance the application of rules and laws against frames of empathy, compassion, and justice. Here scholarly reflection framed by experience can provide insight. This discussion is not a review of the application of laws or justice. Rather, I intend it to provide a more nuanced forum for the application of reflection, insight, compassion, and understanding. The argument for such reflection within the frames of personal, professional, and academic application, is that in funneling thoughts through these prisms, the leader reaches a more just decision. I believe the focus of scholar practitioner lends insight into the ethical conflicts of such dilemmas.

This is not a delineation of virtue in the sense of right and wrong. Such decisions are far more nuanced. Gross and Shapiro (2013) talk of turbulence. Shapiro and Steflovich (2011) ask what the profession would have practitioners do. Such decisions can be turbulent because they are fraught with conflict and angst. A practitioner doctorate requires practitioners to filter real events through both theoretical and practical frames to help them make meaning of significant conflicts.

At a recent social event I spoke with a former colleague whom I had not seen in several years.  He had been one of my principals when I was a high school English teacher early in my career.  I told him of my current work, writing and conducting educational research through the UOP Research Hub.  He replied, “You were always good at that stuff.  I could never do anything like that.”  The work we do in preparing practitioner scholars provides research, background, and information for those in the professions who are unable or unwilling to do the important work of merging theory and practice.  That is the power of the scholar practitioner degree.


Shapiro, J.P. & Gross, S.J. (2013). Ethical educational leadership in turbulent times: (Re)Solving moral dilemmas, 2nd. ed. New York: Routledge.

Shapiro, J.P. & Stefkovich, J.A. (2011). Ethical leadership and decision making in education: Applying theoretical perspectives to complex dilemmas (3rd ed.). New         York: Routledge.