University of Alberta Folio
Volume 41 Number 17
Edmonton , Canada
May 14, 2004
University honours its top teachers
High marks for work in the class
By Richard Cairney, Folio Staff
Jan Henderson remembers landing a leading role in a school play, but feeling too terrified to walk out on stage. Last week, the University of Alberta drama professor received an award for teaching students to do just that, and more.
Henderson was one of seven U of A professors whose superb teaching was recognized with the William Hardy Alexander Award for Excellence in Sessional Teaching and the Rutherford Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching.
For her part, Henderson said the award is also a recognition of her own teaching mentors, including Miss Petersen, the Grade 7 English teacher who pushed her out from the wings and onto the stage.
"I was offstage in tears and she came up and asked me what was wrong. I said I couldn't go on stage," Henderson recalled. "She made me embrace the fear, and when I got out there, I loved it."
Through her renowned mask and clowning classes, Henderson helps her students become self-aware and teaches them to stop listening to self-criticisms that limit their potential. A student who helped nominate Henderson for the teaching award wrote that Henderson "has changed my way of thinking of acting, theatre and life."
"I do know that the mask and clown course is life-changing for some people," said Henderson. "It's about self-acceptance and self-appreciation. People often take that course when they are at a crossroads and don't know what to do with their lives."
Helping students with those big life decisions is sometimes what teaching is all about, said Dr. Carl Amrhein, provost and vice-president (academic).
Great teaching "translates into a zest for life . . . a sense of purpose," said Amrhein who, in presenting the teaching awards said he is "fiercely proud" of U of A teachers.
Amrhein said he remembers his Grade 4 teacher as one of the stronger influences in his life. Addressing children in the room who attended the event with relatives, Amrhein told them to keep a look-out for those few special teachers who stand out.
"Watch out for those creative teachers in your life," he said. "You will recognize when you have a teacher who is different than most. You may have already encountered one of those special teachers."
Being one of those teachers means being a good listener, said Dr. Laurie Mereu, a Rutherford Award recipient who teaches courses in endocrinology in the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry.
"I think I am a good listener, and I enjoy it when the students are enthusiastic and excited. It makes teaching fun," said Mereu, who came to the U of A in 1998 and earned the Outstanding Teacher Award in 2001 and 2002, was named Outstanding Group Leader for undergraduate teaching in 2002 and was recognized for outstanding teaching and contributions to medical education in 2002.
"I have always wanted to be a teacher. I was so excited when I found out I could come to the university and be a teacher."
Dr. Frank Robinson agrees that listening is an essential skill. The Rutherford Award recipient added that being a good listener means you are available to students.
"It's important to be approachable and available and breaking boundaries that are stupid, like office hours," said Robinson, who teaches animal science and applied poultry science in the Faculty of Agriculture, Forestry, and Home Economics.
Teachers know they've done something right, he said, "when students realize they have the power to do something and act on it."
Which brings us back to Miss Petersen who, in her way, didn't simply send a young frightened girl onto the stage, but steered Jan Henderson towards becoming one of the U of A's finest teachers.