Professors (and Learners) of the Year

November 18, 2010

It’s probably not unusual for junior professors to hear they should devote their time to research rather than waste it on teaching. What may be more uncommon is for one of them to do the opposite.

But that’s precisely what Teresa C. Balser did, and her students aren’t the only ones reaping the benefits. Today she is among four faculty members selected as U.S. Professors of the Year, an annual award handed out by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Balser’s determination illustrates a common theme among the four award-winners: a continual, active effort to learn themselves as they promote student learning.

Teresa C. Balser, Wisconsin-Madison

Teri Balser, an associate professor of biology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and professor of the year in the category of doctoral and research universities, used to frequently fly cross-country to participate in leadership training and workshops. Without that experience, she likely wouldn’t have become the teaching-centric professor she is today. “I think people around us probably thought I was nuts,” Balser says, referring to colleagues who (sometimes rather rudely) said she was wasting money and valuable research time. “Thankfully, I enjoyed teaching enough that I ignored that advice.” What she learned on those trips helped her establish the skills to evolve from a teaching scholar to a scholar of teaching – and to help others do the same, if they are willing.

One of the two aspects to Balser’s scholarship of teaching is faculty development, and she’s involved in various efforts to facilitate faculty members’ transition to a more reflective, flexible teaching style. About twice a semester, she hosts interactive brown-bag presentations and workshops on topics such as “activating learning in the classroom.” She also helps lead the Society for the Advancement of Biology Education Research, an alliance of teachers and researchers seeking to improve biology education through methods such as scientific collaboration, training and faculty development programs. “There’s a huge desire to find a community for scholarship of teaching that’s just not out there for biology right now,” Balser says. “A big part of what we’re trying to do is help people find that community.”

All of these efforts work toward Balser’s ultimate goal of promoting student learning. She takes pride in her flexibility in the classroom. No lesson is ever set in stone; if she finds that students can’t recall what they learned last week, she might spend some time reviewing before moving on. She switches up her lessons from week to week, and assesses students’ body language and participation level to determine how effective she is.

“I consider myself a lifelong learner and believe my effectiveness as a teacher in part stems from my desire to continuously grow and improve in my role,” Balser wrote in her personal statement for the award. “Ultimately, I want to be a model for my students with constant new ideas and the passion for learning that strikes at the heart of what it means to be human.”

Ping-Tung Chang, Matanuska-Susitna

A professor of mathematics at the University of Alaska Anchorage extension campus of Matanuska-Susitna College, Ping-Tung Chang, winner in the community colleges category, strives to establish relationships with his students inside and outside the classroom. He keeps coffee and ramen noodles for his students but also urges them to practice healthy eating habits.

Chang greatly values his students’ personal development, which is why he encourages them to pursue opportunities for community service (he founded the on-campus Lions Club) and extracurricular activities (he is adviser of the college’s math club, which also partakes in charitable activities).

In the classroom, Chang wrote in his personal statement, “my students know that they can leave their stress at the door.” He engages them in discussion, focusing on problem-solving tools and methods, and employing strategies like re-testing to build students’ skills and confidence. “Many students see teachers as these distant authority figures, people that read from a book, do a problem on the board, and are otherwise disengaged from reality,” Chang wrote in an e-mail. “My students know better, because we work together, building trust, caring, and a love of mathematics in each student.”

His students appreciate that concept: they established a scholarship fund in his name, which distributed its first award in spring 2009.

Russell O. Colson, Minnesota State-Moorhead

Russ Colson’s motto is, “My students and I do science together.” He is both a coach and a player.

“A coach encourages, instructs, and pushes to excellence. Like a teacher,” Colson, a professor of anthropology and earth science at Minnesota State University at Moorhead, wrote in his personal statement. “As my teaching matured, I realized that coaching was not enough. In some ways, I had to be that senior player who demonstrates good play and sound technique, guiding my students by example through the reasoning, approaches and puzzle-solving techniques of science.”

Colson, winner in the master’s universities and colleges category, says his students appreciate the extra faculty interaction in the geology program he built at Moorhead. It extends out of the classroom, too; many of his classes include field trips, and he has taken more than 1,400 students to do fieldwork and multiday trips with him. Colson sees more value in students “doing” than in “wanting just information.” While many students appreciate that, others have a more difficult time.

“Sometimes when it’s hard for students, I try to get them to recognize the value of doing something that’s hard,” Colson says. “In general, in our society, people realize that education has to be more than knowing things because you can never know more than the computer.”

Working closely with students allows Colson to forge bonds with them that other professors may not have. To appreciate their teacher, his work and the work they do together, he says, his students have to understand him as “more than a talking head.”

“When you’re teaching more than facts, all learning, at some level, becomes an apprenticeship,” Colson says. “Those components of a relationship, of connecting with people in a way that’s emotional as well as intellectual, is important for both the ongoing spiritual health of the faculty, but also the learning growth of the student.”

John Zubizarreta, Columbia (South Carolina)

Inspired teaching breeds inspired learning – and vice versa, says John Zubizarreta, English professor at Columbia College in South Carolina and winner in the baccalaureate colleges category. That is crucial for transformational learning.

“In the intellectually charged relationship between student and mentor, the professor teaches more than content,” Zubizarreta wrote in his personal statement. “He or she teaches habits of thinking, habits of being. In this process of engaged learning, students discover the rewards of controlled inquiry, the value of reasoned discourse, the delight of intellectual curiosity and an earned respect for the process of questioning knowledge with passion and conviction."

Zubizarreta stresses the importance of working patiently and personally with students. He wants them to focus more on how and why they’ve learned than on content memorization. In periodic “reflective learning moments,” Zubizarreta stops the class to have the group “think about the learning process itself, to theorize about the nature of learning and to examine how such reflection improves their intellectual growth.” The process has built camaraderie between him and his students, who have taken to hiding behind campus trees when they see him, in mock concern that he’ll make them reflect.

Good teaching can transform both the teacher and the learner, Zubizarreta says, but that teaching must be reflective and accountable. Teaching is a process that is continually evolving.

“Am I particularly philosophical? Am I just one of those Hamlet-like brooding English professors?” he wrote in an e-mail. “No. I simply love teaching. And that means I am compelled to reflect and to grow for the sake of my students.”

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