How top teachers help students achieve their goals both in and out of the classroom
Marissa Happ, Aurora University
Schools may entice students with state-of-the-art technology and beautiful facilities, but it’s the teachers who make the biggest impact. A great professor can get a student engaged and enthused about learning, and help uncover a lifelong passion and drive.
We spoke with five professors at local colleges and universities who are among the best of the best. They teach a variety of subjects and have differing techniques but one thing unites all of them: A genuine love of teaching and a desire to help students be the best they can be.
MARISSA HAPP, AURORA UNIVERSITY
Marissa Happ is an assistant professor of social work at Aurora University. In 2012, she was the recipient of the National Teacher of the Year Award from the Kids in Need Foundation. She has been teaching higher education for the past 25 years and is passionate about exposing her graduate students to the community.
Happ’s love of teaching springs from her love of social work and she relishes her role of shaping effective and competent new social workers. She points out that most students in the field are already intrinsically motivated, since social work offers more emotional rewards than monetary ones. “The passion is already there and my job is to fan that flame,” she says. “That’s really what I love the most.”
Her classroom is less PowerPoint presentations or two-hour lectures and more small groups working together to solve actual problems. She exposes her students to the agencies, facilities and organizations that will serve their future clients and shows them how to build relationships with them. “Doing so means everybody wins,” she emphasizes. “We can do so much more together than we can do alone.”
Happ has an open door policy and has been known to call out to her students when she sees them in the hall. She knows them on a personal level and has helped some through difficult personal or educational situations, offering adjustments and accommodations when necessary.
“I really, really love encouraging them, especially when they’re overwhelmed,” says Happ. “I love to be there when they surprise themselves with their level of success.”
She’s quick to point out that encouragement goes both ways. “Our students inspire us. We really learn more from them than they do from us,” she maintains. “I know it’s been said before, but I really think that’s true.”
KARL KELLEY, NORTH CENTRAL COLLEGE
Karl Kelley is a psychology professor and former chair of the NCC Division of Science. He was just awarded the college’s 2014 Clarence F. Dissinger Memorial Award for Distinguished Teaching by Senior Faculty. He has been a faculty member since 1988.
Kelley’s passion and enthusiasm for teaching is palpable. He radiates energy when speaking about his students and his colleagues. Aside from his full class load, he also involves students in all aspects of research projects and takes them on national and international research trips exploring applied psychology and topics such as justice and fairness in organizations.
Although some students are daunted by his courses — statistics and applied psychology are his specialities — he loves proving them wrong. “I see it as an opportunity to teach something that is very important in their life,” explains Kelley. “Statistics isn’t just a class to get through, but a way to make better decisions, for ourselves and for our clients. I try to make the course so that it’s useful. We talk about it as ‘statistic story time’ — why statistics developed and why they are useful.”
But he also recognizes that college is more than just studying theories and applications. It’s also about accumulating knowledge to change your life.
“I really enjoy helping students find out who they are as people and then get them to a point where it’s right for them,” says Kelley. And although many of his students have excelled in the field, that’s not how he defines his success.
“Every student has the potential for making the world a better place,” maintains Kelley. “There’s such a wide range of students. Some have an amazing energy, others are really paralyzed. But I like both ends of the spectrum. I like helping them find out how they can be the best that they can be.”
He acknowledges that technology has changed a lot about how he teaches, but says the basic themes have remained the same: Students are trying to figure out who they are and what they want to do.
“I like what I do. I’m excited every morning when I wake up,” says Kelley, who seeks to cultivate that same enthusiasm among his students.
SALLY N. FAIRBANK, COLLEGE OF DUPAGE
Sally N. Fairbank is a professor and coordinator of the Paralegal Studies department. In 2006 she created the paralegal program at COD, and in 2012 she was named Outstanding Overall Faculty Member. Prior to becoming a teacher, she worked as an attorney.
Fairbank’s paralegal students are typically older adults working toward a second career. She wouldn’t have it any other way. Having been in the legal field herself, she knows what an advantage it is for a paralegal to have life experience.
That also makes her students incredibly interesting and inspiring. “Many have had some setbacks or unrealized opportunities,” explains Fairbank. “This is a great opportunity to catch people at a vulnerable time or time of increased focus and engage them.”
While her students may be hungry to learn, it can also leave them lacking in self-confidence. That is where Fairbank really steps in. She gives classroom assessments to identify their temperament and works to utilize their strengths. “Once they realize that everyone has a strength and maybe they just haven’t used theirs before, they think of things differently and start to see their differences as a strength.”
She keeps in touch with working attorneys, visiting them and remaining active on boards so she knows what they’re looking for. She enjoys matching her students’ skills with those needed in different fields of paralegal work and frequently funnels her students directly to a position when the skill sets match. She also helps them draft resumés and portfolios which highlight skill sets that are transferable to other fields, such as human resources and merchandising.
Her classroom discussions can be lively, particularly as the students recognize the legal issues that come up in their everyday lives. And they’re very supportive of each other, frequently passing along job tips or helping set up a portfolio.
“The best part of my job is when they start believing in themselves,” says Fairbank of her students. “They might start out shaken up by a life event but during the course they gain confidence and skills, and at the end, they stand up straighter and prouder.”
SHARON BOROWICZ, BENEDICTINE UNIVERSITY
Sharon Borowicz is an associate professor in the College of Business and Graduate Administration and chair of the Graduate Business Programs. Prior to joining Benedictine University, she was the director of finance for the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Having experience in the corporate world has helped inform Borwicz’s approach and course content while also influencing her teaching style. She appreciates the energy and diversity of her students while retaining a love for her area of specialty.
She recognizes that accounting and taxation, her areas of specialization, are often seen as necessary evils for students in managerial programs, but she enlivens the material by studying actual cases.
“I want to provide a framework for helping them form opinions about situations in the world, like the fall of Enron and WorldCom. I want to show them how to unravel the mysteries and how to explore the issues.”
As a graduate professor, her students come from diverse backgrounds — in age, experience and cultural background. She uses that diversity to her advantage, incorporating projects that allow them to share experiences.
She was an early proponent of technology in the classroom and teaches both online and in the classroom. Her students follow blogs and Twitter accounts to actively engage with current policy makers and see how quickly accounting policies change. “They can actually speak with people helping make the decisions, and that’s very exciting,” she says.
Borowicz is so passionate about teaching that she and two faculty members from the department of education developed a continuing education teaching program for business department faculty members. The modules focus on learning how to teach in a diverse class, and how to use new technologies and new methodologies.
Most of all, Borowicz relishes challenging her students and watching them gain confidence. “Students get so wrapped up in good grades,” she says, “but the classroom allows them the opportunity to take risks and make mistakes. They should make the most of this time and take a risk, try something new, see what it takes.”
KATHLEEN ODELL, DOMINICAN UNIVERSITY
Kathleen Odell is associate professor of economics in the Brennan School of Business and is co-director of the Brennan’s Center for Global Peace Through Commerce. She was the co-leader of the Brennan’s MBA international residency class in South Africa last summer.
Although relatively new as a professor, Odell is already a student favorite. One reason is her ability to weave current events and life experience into her classroom, as well as her willingness to explore non-traditional teaching methods.
With the economy in the news so often, Odell’s students are well aware of the everyday importance of economics and many have been personally impacted. They usually have a good grasp on the topics and know how to research.
Consequently, Odell has adapted her teaching philosophy from one where she provides content, to one where classroom time is spent on problem solving and critical thinking. She counts on her students to study the material before class and then spends classroom time seeing how the model applies to reality.
Odell brings current events to both her undergraduate and graduate classrooms. For undergraduates, that might mean studying news articles, taking class concepts and seeing how they connect to monetary policy. Graduate students often bring in their real world experience for discussion.
It’s her students that give Odell the greatest satisfaction and she has a deep-seated love of teaching. “I get excited when things start to click for the students and they start to ask the questions,” she says. “Then suddenly they’re making connections, and finally they start to connect the information to their own lives or what is happening outside of the classroom.