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President Heidi Macpherson poses with 2018 Presidential Teaching Excellence Award winners Jennifer Chesebro, Rebecca Smith, John Keiser, Ashley Fico, and Steven Jurek (from left to right).

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  • 2018-10-01
  • Anna Loria

Q&A: Presidential Teaching Excellence Award Winners

The 2018 Presidential Teaching Excellence Award winners share their words of wisdom, teaching techniques, and sources of inspiration.

The second annual Presidential Teaching Excellence Award (PTEA) recognized five faculty members for exceptional teaching — with some help from those doing the learning.

Nearly 600 students — twice as many as last year — submitted faculty nominations to the president's office for the 2018 PTEA. The five winners received a plaque and a $500 stipend toward professional development for the 2018–19 academic year.

The winners are Jennifer Chesebro, instructor, Department of Nursing; Ashley Fico, assistant professor, Department of Public Health and Health Education; Steven Jurek, associate professor and chair, Department of Political Science and International Studies; John Keiser, associate professor, Department of Business Administration; and Rebecca Smith, associate professor and chair, Department of Mathematics. Get to know them:

Knowing that your students nominated you for a Presidential Teaching Excellence Award, what does this recognition mean to you?

Chesebro: It’s incredibly humbling. I am overwhelmed at how much simple things, like taking a minute to give a little encouragement, means so much to students. It reminds me to take those extra precious moments and to keep sight of what really matters at the end of the day — learning one more concept is not more important than knowing your instructor believes in you.

Fico: It was incredibly touching to be nominated by my students. I felt so honored to know that they took time away from their own busy lives to write nominations and recognize my efforts. As a professor, it is sometimes challenging to know if you are communicating course content in a way that connects with students. To have validation from students that your approach is working is incredibly rewarding.

Jurek: I am delighted that students respond so well to our interactions in and out of the classroom.

Keiser: Student nominations make the PTEA especially meaningful. They’re the ones who attend the classes, participate in discussions, write the papers, take the exams, etc. They see our good days and our bad days. At the end of the semester, they’re really the experts regarding a teacher’s effectiveness. There’s no personal benefit for writing a nomination, so their opinions are very sincere.

Smith: It’s very special to be recognized by students, particularly in a department where everyone is so dedicated to student success. I don’t have the words to express my gratitude.

Who and/or what inspired you to pursue a career in higher education?

Chesebro: Nursing instructors when I attended here (Kathy Peterson, Nancy Iafrati, Marcia Ullman, Patty Sharkey, and so many others) were so passionate about helping us become excellent nurses that I wanted to spread that passion. My husband, Joe Chesebro, who teaches in the Department of Communication, has been a wonderful mentor and cheerleader for me. Seeing how much he loves teaching and engaging with his students encourages me to seek the same experiences.

Fico: I’ve always been a curious person who sought to learn more about the world. Higher education offered me the opportunity to conduct research that would allow me to explore important issues and share findings. My mom is an elementary school teacher, and I was always inspired by the joy she expressed when her students mastered a topic. Dr. John Keiser was my former professor and highly influential in my own decision to pursue this career. He served as a mentor and role model, demonstrating how a professor could not only help students master course content, but also develop professionally and succeed outside of the classroom.

Jurek: I witnessed my father work 9- to 10-hour days, six days a week, his entire life. That inspired me to find something I love which also provides a much kinder work/life balance.

Keiser: After my undergraduate studies, I worked in the field of human resources management. I enjoyed trying to make sense of all the interesting and peculiar things that happen in the workplace. That led to graduate work in organizational behavior and my PhD. Ironically, organizational research exists primarily in academics, not in industry, so that largely explains why I’m in higher education. I’ve been fortunate to have two great career mentors: my thesis chair, Huseyin Leblebici at the University of Illinois, and my father, Jim, who was a professor at Penn State. I can’t think of anyone who has enjoyed their career more than they have enjoyed theirs.

Smith: Nelson Rich, my undergraduate advisor, was the one who convinced me to pursue mathematics at the graduate level. Once there, it was the students in my classes and my fellow graduate students who convinced me that I wanted a career where I could do mathematical research and teach in a diverse environment.

How would you describe your approach to teaching?

Chesebro: I start by considering the students (who they are, their backgrounds, their abilities) and then think about where I want them to get to and what I want them to learn. Not every student starts in the same place, but with guidance and hard work, they can all achieve the end goals.

Fico: I recognize that students come into the classroom with different backgrounds, levels of knowledge, and prior experiences. I try to meet students where they are, set high expectations, and offer resources to help them succeed. I aim to create a relaxed classroom environment by sharing stories from my own life that relate to topics we’re covering in class. It is helpful to let students get to know you as a person who makes mistakes and has their own funny quirks and life experiences. If students see that you’re willing to be open and honest, they’ll do the same.

Jurek: Everything I do is trial and error. I see what works and run with it. This flexibility and willingness to try varieties of methods crafted my teaching over the years.

Keiser: There’s a lot of really good knowledge in the field of management. My goal is to do justice to the material. If I teach it well, the students should also find it interesting and valuable. My undergraduate degree was from a large state university where many of my business courses had 200 to 300 students. I rarely interacted with the professors, since I typically sat 30 rows back in the lecture hall. I suppose one approach to my teaching is to provide an experience for the students which is much more engaging from what I had as an undergraduate.

Smith: I want my students to love mathematics as much as I do, so I try to convey that. I also make every effort to help students feel comfortable asking questions and seeking help, since that’s how we learn.

What words of wisdom do you have for the freshman class of 2022?

Chesebro: Keep looking forward, and don’t get too hung up on bad days or bad experiences. This part of your life is incredibly challenging, so you have good reason to feel overwhelmed at times, but don’t stop there! There are a lot of amazing opportunities that will only be available to you while you are in college.

Fico: Use your time at Brockport to explore your interests and build relationships with others. Don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone and explore something new, to challenge yourself, and to learn more about who you are as an individual.

Jurek: Narcissism coupled with ignorance is a dangerous combination that is more and more pervasive today. Education is the best defense against this, and the only way to learn is when you are uncomfortable. If a class is easy, drop it immediately. Accept the challenges of a difficult class; the grade earned is much sweeter. 

Keiser: Education is two-way exchange. It’s the professor’s job to teach, just as it’s the student’s responsibility to learn. That means reading the texts, doing the assignments, paying attention in class, and studying independently. If you take your learning as seriously as your professors take their teaching, you’ll do fine. Secondly, spend more time in the moment and less on your smart phones. There’s no substitute for face-to-face interactions. 

Smith: Try to solve problems, write code, run experiments, create poetry, learn something new, etc. Get it wrong. Try again. Perfection means you haven’t challenged yourself enough yet.

What is your current research interest?

Chesebro: Students’ self-care practices and how they can be supported, safety for patients and students while nursing students learn in clinical settings

Fico: I examine the role of interpersonal communication in the context of health. I’m particularly passionate about the topic of organ donation.

Keiser: Recently, I’ve been writing more about business ethics. I’m currently working on a paper regarding ethical role models and other influences in the workplace.

Jurek: European politics, especially the role of left- and right-wing populism

Smith: Enumerative Combinatorics and Algorithms/Theoretical Computer Science

What continues to excite you about teaching?

Chesebro: Watching students have that “a-ha!” moment when they see their hard work pay off.

Fico: Witnessing my students’ personal and professional growth. It is always exciting to see them master course content, witness their enthusiasm as they pursue internships and research opportunities, and watch as they cross the stage at graduation. After graduation, hearing from students who share their love for their careers or graduate school is tremendously rewarding.

Jurek: Pairing my teaching with high-impact activities reinvigorates my enthusiasm for the shared learning experience I have with my students. I am fortunate to be involved with several programs: EuroSim, our Washington D.C. internship program, and study abroad — all which challenge students outside the classroom. These experiences are most rewarding and keep the excitement level high.  

Keiser: Teaching management is really enjoyable, since the business environment is constantly in flux. As a result, the material always changes and doesn’t get stale. Every day, there’s something in the business press that relates to class, and it’s enjoyable to integrate those stories with the course material. Every semester, the students change with the material, so it never gets old.

Smith: 1. Students who make the effort, especially when it’s difficult. It’s easy to give up but more rewarding to persist. 2. The opportunity to explore new ideas. Continuing to learn mathematics myself allows me to share that enthusiasm with students. I can’t imagine teaching without continued learning. 3. Having colleagues who are amazing to work with and who are committed to teaching. This allows for an ideal environment to share ideas and techniques for helping students learn.

Last Updated 5/26/21

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