May 23, 2011
Recognizing excellent teachers at Johns Hopkins University
What makes a great teacher, you ask? Is it one who entertains while imparting knowledge, or one who gives it to you straight? One who holds your hand while you’re learning, or one who let’s you figure it out on your own?
It all depends—on you, the subject and, of course, the teacher.
What the winners of this year’s Johns Hopkins Alumni Association Excellence in Teaching Award have in common is that they all excel in the art of teaching, though their styles are as varied as the subjects they teach.
The award, which has been given annually since 1992, allows each academic division of the university to publicly recognize the critical importance of teaching. The nomination and selection processes differ by school, but students must be involved in the selection. Some schools give multiple awards in different classifications, such as the School of Public Health, which calls its awards Golden Apples.
This year, the winners share their perspectives on their skills in their own words, tipping their hats to both those teachers who inspired them and the students from whom they continue to learn.
Not included here is the winner from SAIS, which gives its Excellence in Teaching Award to a faculty member at the Bologna Center and announces it at the center’s commencement.
The interviews were conducted by Lisa De Nike and Amy Lunday (Arts and Sciences), Andrew Blumberg (Business), James Campbell (Education), Phil Sneiderman (Engineering), John Lazarou (Medicine), Jon Eichberger (Nursing), Richard Selden (Peabody) and Jackie Frank, Christine Grillo and Natalie Wood-Wright (Public Health).
Bloomberg School of Public Health
Kevin Frick, professor, Health Policy and Management
Courses being recognized: Obesity Economics (Internet-based class) and Cost-Effective Methodological Exercises (small class)
In an unusual Golden Apple (as the award is known in the Bloomberg School) outcome, health economics expert Kevin Frick was a double winner for two classes—Obesity Economics and Cost-Effective Methodological Exercises—both of which were offered in an Internet-based format for the first time. Students gave Frick, who has 10 years of experience in teaching online, top votes in the categories of Internet-based class and small class, with 70 and 30 students, respectively.
In nominating him, one student wrote, “Kevin Frick is a gifted teacher who has the ability to make complicated topics relevant, easily accessible and understandable. He is passionate about his work, inspiring and has been a true mentor.”
Of his teaching style, Frick says, “I’ve taken some time to think about what it is I’m doing, and how does it match what we know about what people learn, whether you’re thinking about answers to thought-provoking questions or doing nitty-gritty exercises. The notion of repeated exposure to topics—going a little more deeply on a smaller set rather than broad brushstrokes across a wide variety of things—is something that I’m hoping to implement more across the things that I teach.”
Obesity Economics (Internet class)
How do you connect with students in a large Internet-based course? “At the start of the course, I ask the students to introduce themselves on the bulletin board [an electronic forum for teacher/student exchanges]. Later in the course I’ll post a policy on the board and ask them to use the economic logic that they’ve learned so far to talk about the policy. In my responses, to the degree that I can, I try to tap into the students’ personal experience that they provide in the introduction. One policy might be a soda or snack tax. All students would have a chance to respond, and if one student was a dietitian, I could ask not only how a tax might affect [his] behavior, but what insight [he] would have about how other people and organizations would respond.”
What impresses you most about your students? “One of the things that always amazes me is the incredible experiences that our students as a group bring to the table before they get to this point in their graduate education. They have insights as to whether all these economic models and assumptions really work in the real world.”
What would you like students to take away from the course? “I really hope that students take away the notion that incentives affect health behaviors. While I would hesitate to say that obesity is a completely personal responsibility, there are a lot of choices that people make, given the resources and opportunities they have, that fundamentally shape health outcomes, including obesity. I have a colleague who likes to think about making healthy foods more available in certain parts of the city. You can make them available all you want, but if people can’t afford them, or if people think they take longer to cook than a frozen dinner, you still may not change people’s behavior much.”
What do you think is the most challenging aspect of the course for students? “I think it’s grasping the notion that people’s weight and other health [issues] really respond to individual incentives they face and that sometimes there is not much for the government to do. An example that was discussed is the notion that people need to work to earn money. Earning more money makes eating out more affordable. Earning more money also takes more time and leaves less time for food preparation. If a person then likes to earn more money to afford more of anything, it may also affect his food choices and weight. The goal is to get them to talk about the economic logic. Most people, when thinking about economics, think about graphs and equation problems. This course has a little of that, but it’s mostly writing and verbalizing the logic.”
Cost-Effective Methodological Exercises (small class)
What is your teaching philosophy for this course? “[Cost-effective analysis] is something that most of the students have rarely done before. But it’s the kind of subject where if you do each step methodically, it isn’t that hard, but they need some handholding—not in a pejorative sense—to really understand how to connect the dots. You might be an Excel whiz but never had to make connections in this particular way before. My older son’s teacher once described doing long division as a laborious process, but if you do the same steps over and over again, you get it right. I try to emphasize that some of these steps are laborious processes, but if you follow the steps correctly for the seven exercises, you’ll get the right interpretations. One thing I point out to them is that there have been some studies published where pieces of the study are excellent but ended up with the wrong interpretation because somewhere along the line they didn’t follow the steps that I’m showing the students.”
Can you give an example of the type of economic analysis that the course addresses? “We’re trying to assess whether we are getting value for money. But we have to try different prices and check whether we draw the same conclusion at each price in the ‘what if’ analyses. For example, we have an idea of what the price of a pharmaceutical product will be. However, the price may be higher or lower depending on who the payer is and what they have negotiated. You can run a ‘what if’ analysis with a range of prices and ask ‘what if’ at each level. The policy conclusion about whether something is cost-effective may change at different prices.”
How do you structure the course in a way that clearly defines each step of a cost-effective analysis to prepare students for the second half of the course, which is to combine the steps in one complete analysis? “It’s really this notion of starting with a simple example and building up a little bit as you move through four steps for each exercise. With each type of exercise there’s a lecture, then a practice exercise that a subset of students are required to do, then a second practice exercise that all students have the option of doing. Then there’s the final step, which is a full exercise that all the students are required to do and on which their performance is evaluated. They get a lot of chances to practice and receive feedback prior to the evaluation.”
Joanne Katz, professor and associate chair of the Department of International Health and director of the Program in Global Disease Epidemiology and Control
Course being recognized: Design and Conduct of Community Trials (medium class)
Described by her students as a “gifted professor” who is easily able to explain advanced concepts and convey complex ideas, Joanne Katz wastes no time setting the stage for the challenges that lie ahead for her students who one day hope to change the landscape of public health. When first walking into her classroom, they are greeted by a video strategically cued to a busy and potentially overwhelming scene in Bangladesh. The road is bumpy, and buses, trucks, motorcycles and bicycles are flying off the screen while horns honk incessantly. To some, this could signal sensory overload, but to Katz’s students this is one of many exciting environments they may face as public health practitioners.
What prompted your interest in public health? “I came to public health in a serendipitous way. I had no idea what it was, but JHSPH [now dean emeritus and professor] Al Sommer gave me my first job. The first assignment seemed par for the course, and I was given a data set to analyze. What I did not expect was to find something so surprising it would lead to one of public health’s biggest discoveries. The data set showed that vitamin A deficiency resulted in an increased mortality for young children in Indonesia. Follow-up trials showed that supplementing children with vitamin A twice a year improved their survival. After this discovery, I was sold—how could one not love having a role in saving lives, millions at a time?”
Why did you decide to teach? “I love conducting research, and the Bloomberg School is a very research-oriented school of public health, but I really believe that teaching the next group of researchers and practitioners has enormous value. Our students are our future, and teaching multiplies your impact by having your ideas sent out into the world with many different people who then go teach them to others.”
What makes Design and Conduct of Community Trials unique among public health courses? “Field trials in low-income countries are needed to provide an evidence base to assess potentially useful new interventions and to develop more-effective disease control strategies. This course uses the principles of randomized clinical trials to discuss the design and methods for conducting community trials in resource-poor environments. [It] is a hands-on course with much of the learning done in teams working to write a randomized community trial proposal. The trials are presented to the class, fostering discussion and encouraging questions from fellow classmates. The course is highlighted by a constant interaction between me, [Associate Professor] Luke Mullany, [Assistant Professor] Alain Labrique and the students. Our support and interaction allow the students to see a level of collaboration, commitment and camaraderie that embodies the spirit of teamwork that is critical to the success of large field trials. In addition, our teaching assistant, Naoko Kozuki, shares her experience interning at our field site in Nepal, providing an additional resource for students.”
What have you learned from your students? “Their energy and commitment are infectious. With each interaction, I take with me their idealism and interest in making the world better for the most disenfranchised communities. Working with students is a true partnership whereby I help them acquire the skills to turn this idealism into something useful.”
Alan Scott, professor, Molecular Microbiology and Immunology
Course being recognized: Principles of Immunology (large class)
Always available to answer questions, Alan Scott is known as a teacher who takes a personal interest in how well his students learn the course’s subject matter. “But more than that, he seemed to really care,” said one of his students. Another student admitted, “While I wasn’t terribly interested in the course at the beginning, he was engaging enough to make me glad I took it.”
How are you able to reach so many students in such a large class? “I think that part of the appeal of the course for many students is that they gain a relatively sophisticated degree of understanding of the molecular and cellular basis for the pathogenesis of diseases that afflict their friends or family members.”
How do you make Principles of Immunology interesting to students who might find it dry? “Whenever possible, I frame the cellular and molecular mechanisms of the immune response in the practical context of infectious, environmental, cancer or immunological challenges.”
What are the most salient lessons of Principles of Immunology? “I hope that the students take away an appreciation that the vertebrate immune response is a wonderfully complex and adaptable biological system that is absolutely necessary to exist in relative harmony in a microbe-filled world. In addition, I hope that they grasp how immunological principles can be applied with great benefit to a wide spectrum of medical and public health endeavors.”
Is there anything that you want to tell your students now that the class is over? “It’s never over. Immunology is a rapidly evolving and expanding area of study that requires constant monitoring to identify new facts and principles and to see how the new facts support or challenge the established paradigms. If you are an aspiring immunologist, you should concede that you are going to be a perpetual student.”
Stephen Teret, professor, Health Policy and Management
Course being recognized: Making Change Through Policy (large class)
Hailed as a guide for students embarking on a new and great adventure in public health, Stephen Teret has earned a reputation as an inspirational teacher and a superb adviser. As one student put it, “He is able to communicate so very well the opportunity we have in public health to make a difference.”
What can you say to people who think that health policy is less than thrilling? “What I say to the students at the beginning of the course is, Just sit back, and listen to this. The course is composed of case studies of people making change through policy. The lecturers tell incredible stories, such as ‘How polio was eliminated in the United States,’ or ‘How we got Thailand to reduce the prevalence of HIV through policies promoting condom use.’ Even if a student does not plan to work in the area of policy, it’s hard not to appreciate the role of policy in protecting the public’s health after hearing stories such as these.”
Have you learned anything from your students? “Every year, I learn as much from my students as they learn from me. This is one of the great joys of teaching in this school. The added benefit is that after they have earned their degree here, the students stay in touch and continue to teach me, and charge me no tuition!”
What are the most salient lessons of Making Change Through Policy? “My initial hurdle with the Making Change course is to explain that it is not a quantitative course designed to teach the students that there are five nickels to a quarter. My ultimate hope for the course is that it will inspire our students that they can actually accomplish amazing tasks that will positively affect the well-being of entire populations.”
Your class is Making Change through Policy. How do you make change through teaching? “You make change, if you are lucky, by inspiring your students to do their very best. At the Bloomberg School, that is not hard to do, given the quality and character of our students.”
Is there anything that you want to tell your students now that the class is over? “Thank you for the onion rings.”
Carey Business School
James Calvin, associate professor in the practice track
The lure of what brought James Calvin to Johns Hopkins continues to hold true. “It was the opportunity to work with colleagues who were very much interested in the development of future leaders, and people going through our graduate programs who wanted to make a difference not only in their lives but in the lives of people in their organizations and communities,” says Calvin, whose areas of expertise include leadership and community economic development, and the continuing evolution of the nonprofit sector in American business and society, and the NGO sector internationally.
Calvin, who earned his PhD (with distinction) in communication, culture and phenomenology from New York University, came to Johns Hopkins from the Institute for Educational Leadership, a Washington, D.C., think tank, where he had worked withh former CEOs William S. Woodside of Primerica and James J. Renier of Honewell and other business leaders from around the country in the corporate, nonprofit and government sectors on leadership development and public policy issues. Arriving at Johns Hopkins, he was eager to translate many of the findings and theories from his work at the institute to the classroom. The Leadership Development Program for Minority Managers, a trailblazing course of study begun in 1990 and now in its third decade, was a natural fit in particular. Sixteen years—and a like number of graduated cohorts—later, Calvin (who also teaches global, executive and conventional part-time MBA students) enjoys collaborating with the young professionals in his class as much as ever.
Any standout moments? “When students have raised their game and participation, it enables me to get beyond mere learning and basic instruction. It’s not always about agreement. It’s about dialogue, discussion and getting to the depth of the issues. Honesty’s not just encouraged, it’s expected. We have a diverse group of learners from different parts of the world, so not everyone sees issues the same way, in business, in government, even in what leadership and management are.”
Teaching inspirations? “When I was a doctoral student at NYU, I had a history professor, Paul Mattingly, who was very inspirational. He connected our studies to world events, business trends, the cross-cultural aspects of what we were discussing in the classroom. I really loved his delivery. I’ve tried to carry that idea forward in my approach to teaching; I like to engage my students in the same Socratic manner.”
How would you describe your teaching style? “I work to seek out both questions and answers. [My style] is guided by a desire to contribute to the livelihood, welfare and development of others as well as myself.”
What are your goals as a teacher? “My immediate goal would be for my students and me, when we’ve completed a course, to be further along in our understanding than when we started, not just of the subjects at hand but of each other.”
What is your take-away from your students? “I’ve developed over the years a number of relationships with former students, some of whom have risen to the level of the C-suite in major corporations, government and nonprofits. I’m appreciative we’ve maintained contact and they can share what they’re doing in their lives and how that’s impacting others. I see it as a community in which I’m a member and have ownership in. The learning and growth are continuous.”
Students say: “[Dr. Calvin] is a remarkable teacher with the ability to instill in his students the desire to think beyond borders. His teaching style encourages learning by doing and being fully engaged and prepared.”
“Dr. Calvin is such a dynamic individual who takes great pride and enthusiasm in his role as an educator. His passion for developing leadership in others is electrifying and really inspires his students to push themselves above and beyond all expectations.”
David Sislen, practitioner faculty in real estate
Dave Sislen always knew he wanted to teach, and after earning his MBA in finance and accounting from the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, the seeds were firmly planted. President of Bristol Capital Corp., a Bethesda, Md., commercial real estate and investment advisory firm he founded in 1986, Sislen started his journey to Johns Hopkins in 2005, when a friend mentioned that a part-time teaching position was available in the school’s Edward St. John Real Estate Program. Shortly thereafter, Sislen began teaching as a practitioner faculty member and has never looked back.
For most of his teaching career, Sislen has taught in the part-time Master of Science in Real Estate program at the university’s Washington, D.C., Center, although he recently instructed some students enrolled in the full-time degree option as well. He specializes in a course called Real Estate Finance that has undergone slight name changes over time but remains a bedrock core offering for aspiring investors, deal-makers and developers in the industry.
Sislen has a deep appreciation, in particular, for the grit and determination shown by his part-time charges. “I have unending respect for them because they’re making a commitment to education at a time in their lives, by definition, when they have so many responsibilities,” he says.
Did you have any teaching inspirations? “When I was in graduate business school, I had a whole series of great teachers, but particularly outstanding was a guy by the name of George Stigler, who won the Nobel Prize in economics. He was not only the smartest man I ever met but the funniest man as well, and used both qualities to great effect in his teaching. It was a privilege to sit in his class.”
How do you describe your teaching style? “I think my students would describe it as ‘always prepared,’ and ‘a relatively informal style,’ much more of a discussion than a lecture. I really want to go wherever the conversation goes, but I’ll still get back to cover everything in my outline. For example, I find it impossible to teach from PowerPoint. You have to go from slide A to slide B to slide C. What if the conversation goes to slide Z when you’re on slide B? Do you kill [the conversation] right there? You would lose the thread of thought, the enthusiasm for the moment, the intellectual integrity of what’s happening.”
What are your goals as a teacher? “Personally, it is to continue enjoying the privilege of teaching. In terms of my students, there are two goals that are almost polar opposites. No. 1, I want them to get comfortable with the theory and the mathematics of finance so that they can apply it as the world changes. No. 2, I want them to have a sufficient level of comfort with those precepts so they can exercise critical thinking skills and question—even challenge, when warranted—things that are presented to them, either in the business world or in the policy world of economics and finance.”
What is your take-away from your students? “If there are 25 students in my class with 10 years of experience apiece, that’s 250 years of experience. I tell them that it’s their obligation to share that experience with their classmates and with me. I certainly have a unique forum for getting a cross-sectional study of what’s going on at any time in the real estate business.”
Students say: “He is clearly passionate about real estate and brings his personal experience to bear in the classroom, as well as openness and a culture of sharing. He’s always available to his students, whether for a follow-up issue or developing one’s career track. He encourages his students to bring their experience, and he leads by example.”
“It’s rare to find someone in the real estate business willing to give back so much. He has an open door policy, no ego, a sense of humor. He brings current topics to the classroom and uses this strategy as a platform to teach. As a new student, you’re told: ‘You’ve got to take Sislen’s class.’”
Krieger School of Arts and Sciences
Emily Fisher, lecturer, Biology
The daughter of two biologists who also were feminists, Emily Fisher grew up in Northern California believing she could be whatever she wanted to be. In childhood, a book about Sally Ride convinced her that she wanted to soar into outer space as an astronaut, and her love of verbal sparring in high school led her to think a career in law might be in her future. But in college, she gravitated to molecular biology and graduated from the University of California, Santa Cruz, with a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and molecular biology. (Her parents didn’t pressure her, honest!) After earning her PhD at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Fisher moved to Baltimore to be with her now husband, who was attending dental school at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. The move forced her to choose—at least temporarily—between research, which requires several years of postdoctoral work, and teaching. “I found a wonderful postdoc opportunity at University of Maryland, but when I interviewed at Johns Hopkins, I thought [teaching] seemed more fun and suited me better,” she said. “And it has.”
Describe your teaching style. “I like to talk about biology in a conversational way, and I don’t believe in using unnecessarily complicated jargon. The concepts are tough enough without learning an entirely new language to describe them. I like to talk about biology in the same way I would talk about movies, current events or celebrity gossip. I don’t like to be too formal about it.”
Any teaching aspirations? “My former aspiration was to start a microbiology course, and I accomplished that with Dr. Jocelyne DiRuggiero last semester, when we started The Microbial World for advanced undergraduates. I love microbiology and genetics, and it was fun to discuss those topics with students in the informal setting that a small class of 20 students allows. With that goal attained, I think it would be fun to create a companion lab course that would be a discovery-based project lab, but that is probably many years down the road.”
Who is your personal teaching role model? “My high school English teacher, Tim Ferrell. I took AP English and Shakespeare from him. He had probably read hundreds of [student] essays about Romeo and Juliet, but he treated each one with respect and always offered thoughtful critiques that made us better writers. He was also incredibly smart and had a lot to teach us about the history associated with literature classics.”
What have you learned from your students? “My students have made me understand why someone would want to go to medical school and become a physician. I was always fascinated by basic science and the thrill of discovery, but I never had any desire to apply that to medicine. However, many of my students are on their way to med school, and in my conversations with them, it is interesting to see them connect the basic biology of my classes to their sincere interests in medicine. I am now as interested in the application of scientific concepts as I am in the basic understanding of biological mechanisms.”
How about sharing a “most memorable” in-class moment? “My memorable class moments are all silly. One time, I was talking and gesturing with my hands and popped the microphone off of my shirt. I grabbed the cord and found the microphone but couldn’t find the clip. I was looking around the podium and thought I had lost it when a student yelled, ‘It’s on your shirt.’ One of my best friends says I remind him of Liz Lemon from 30 Rock, and that was definitely a Liz Lemon moment.”
Describe the best class you ever taught. What happened? “The best class I ever taught was last fall in The Microbial World. We were discussing the human microbiome, the consortium of microbes that live inside and on us throughout our lives. It was a great discussion with lots of student participation, and it was clear that the students had read the articles I had assigned and also that they were very interested in the topic. They asked great questions, some of which would have warranted another entire class period if we had time. When the class period ended, I didn’t want to stop the discussion, and I think the students felt the same way. That’s what I love about discussing science—there is always much more to discuss and many more questions to be investigated.”
Who is your favorite TV or movie teacher? “Sue Sylvester from Glee. She is basically my polar opposite—I hope—and I find her hilarious. But no, I do not want to be like her.”
If you had to guess, why would you say you were selected for this honor? “One of the great things about being able to teach parts of both biochemistry and cell biology is that many of my students take both in the same academic year, so I get to spend that entire year with them. These are tough, large classes, and I get to teach small discussion sections every day. By the end of the academic year, I have gotten to know a lot of students personally. Throughout the year we start small, with amino acids forming peptides, and zoom out from there, eventually discussing how cells in multicellular organisms communicate with one another and with their environment. It is fun for me to put these pieces together, and I think the students enjoy it, too. And for those who find these classes especially challenging, I think they appreciate that I’m in it with them. If they find me useful or approachable during the fall, I can be that resource for them in spring, too.”
Students say: “Dr. Fisher is an outstanding teacher. She is kind, and she is admirable. She motivates her students to tackle difficult concepts and goes to great strides to ensure that all her students excel.”
“Not only is Dr. Fisher a great professor, but she also cares that her students learn and are able to apply the knowledge we acquire in class. Dr. Fisher is well-organized, dedicated and enthusiastic about teaching us. Not only does she lecture (entertain) us, but she also leads recitation sections outside of class time for review and clarification. And she writes the most fantastic notes! She is everything a great professor should be, and even more than that, she is approachable and very friendly, so it’s always easy to get extra help or a quick explanation of a difficult topic. She’s what I want to be when I grow up!”
Imtiaz Billah, PhD candidate, Chemistry
Growing up in Edison, N.J., Imtiaz Billah spent many happy hours with his family watching Friday night basketball games, discussing the news and just hanging out with his mom (a pharmacy technician), dad (a biochemist), sister and grandparents. But the same family that was the source of comfort and entertainment provided something else as well: great role models that exemplified the value of education and hard work. Growing up in the Internet and technology boom of the late 1990s, Billah saw himself pursuing a career in finance or as a venture capitalist. After graduating from high school in 2000, he headed to Brandeis University intending to major in business or a technological field. While there, however, he read an article positing that those with undergraduate degrees in engineering and MBAs were best-positioned to take advantage of the intersection of business and technology. Because Brandeis did not offer engineering, Billah instead enrolled in a chemistry class and was surprised to find he “had a knack for it.” He decided to major in chemistry and has never looked back.
Describe your teaching style. “Well, first, I don’t like to call on anybody because I disliked that growing up. I like to lecture first, give out problem sets for my students to work on, walk around the room to see how everyone is doing and then go over the problem set. I try to explain concepts and rules in simple terms but go into some detail so students can thoroughly understand what is going on. I am very big on knowing the formal name of reactions, rules and postulates. My fascination with the history of science spills also over into the classroom in that I like to tell my students about famous chemists and the reactions and theorems they have developed. My style can be summarized as formal lecturing coupled with some hands-on interaction with the students.”
Any teaching aspirations? “My main goal is to be a high-level graduate student. In other words, I want to be an effective experimentalist, problem solver and teacher with a strong knowledge of chemistry.”
Who is your role model? “I take what I liked from teachers I had in the past and combine the parts to make my own style. For instance, when teaching me something for the first time, my mother would show me examples, so I try to do the same thing with my students. And whenever my father taught me something and asked me a question, he would say, ‘Are you sure?’ when I gave him my answer. He wanted to ascertain whether I really understood. So I do that, too, often posing the question, ‘Are you sure this happens?’ to my students to determine how well they understand something.”
What do you learn from your students? “The students at Johns Hopkins are of a very high caliber. Their thought-provoking questions help me think more about chemistry and devise better ways of explaining and understanding concepts.”
How about a “most memorable” in-class moment? “My ‘most memorable’ in-class moment was in the fall of 2010 for Professor Townsend. In the beginning of most classes, a short 15-minute quiz is administered, but this particular week, I thought the students needed more practice. So I decided that I was going to make up a challenging problem set but give it to the students as a fake quiz. Actual quizzes for this class are normally two or three questions that take, at most, 15 minutes. My “quiz” was 15 questions. I handed the fake quiz out and informed the class that it had 45 minutes to complete it without the help of their notes and textbooks. Needless to say, the students were rattled by the daunting quiz. I didn’t let them suffer for long: 30 seconds into the insidious prank, I said, ‘Relax, guys. This is not a quiz. This is way too long and way too hard.’ I had some confused looks and a lot of laughter. I feel this helped me build some rapport with the students and teach them hard concepts in a less stressful environment.”
Who is your favorite TV or movie teacher? “I liked Howard ‘Bunny’ Colvin from The Wire. He was a retired cop who ended up working with troubled inner-city high school students. He wanted to help out those kids. He knew exactly how to treat and handle them. Also, The Wire is one my favorite shows of all time.”
If you had to guess, why would you say you were selected for this honor? “Because of the terrific people around me. The JHU Chemistry faculty—including my supervisor, Ken Karlin; Thomas Lectka; Craig Townsend; and Laurence Principe—are great mentors and influences. My family, friends, current supervisor and fellow lab mates, fellow JHU Chemistry graduate students, JHU Chemistry faculty and past supervisors have made chemistry fun and exciting for me. I wanted to pass the excitement on to my students so they can learn the subject at a high level. Of course, the students I had this past year were really amazing. Because of my wonderful students, a cordial and effective learning environment was created.”
A student says: “Imtiaz is always incredibly clear, concise, efficient and professional. He is always eager to help yet expects students to pull their half. Whether doing PowerPoints peppered with out-of-the-blue funny comments and clever ways to remember the many details of organic chemistry, or while answering problem set questions, Imtiaz’s enthusiasm and dedication make understanding chemistry a feasible task.”
A faculty member says: “I think Imtiaz is an exemplary choice for this award. He made my job as course instructor easier and vastly more successful. Finally, no higher compliment can be paid than to state that Imtiaz has ‘turned on’ many JHU undergraduates to the exciting study of organic chemistry.”
Sunil Vaswani, PhD candidate, Political Science
Sunil Vaswani was drawn to teaching because it runs in the family. His mother was a high school teacher, and his grandfather was the principal of a training college in Mumbai, India. He enjoys research and teaching, which made the PhD a natural choice, he says. He earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Virginia and came to Johns Hopkins for a master’s degree in international relations from SAIS. While working toward his doctorate in political science at Homewood, he has taught his own courses, such as War and Politics and Issues in International Security, and served as a teaching assistant for courses such as Republicanism and Global Security Politics.
Now in front of the classroom, it’s Vaswani’s turn to influence the next generation of students, who say he is “the best TA” and “a great professor and researcher” who is “willing to go the extra mile for anyone who shows the initiative.”
What’s your teaching style? “I have taught seminar classes consisting of 15 to 20 students in my time at Hopkins. In these classes I usually follow a mix of lecture and discussion. The amount of lecture versus discussion varies each week and really depends on the topics being discussed and the key points I want the students to take away. When I lead discussion sections as a teaching assistant, they are almost entirely interactive. Sometimes I start with a brief lecture to get the class warmed up, particularly at 9 o’clock on Friday mornings. But then the students start to talk, as they should.”
We know your family was your first teaching inspiration. How about here at Johns Hopkins and beyond? “I have learned a great deal about quality teaching at Hopkins by taking seminars with Professors Daniel Deudney, Steven David and Adam Sheingate, among others. They have different styles and approaches, but all of them are effective teachers. I also tend to closely watch speeches and town hall performances of some of the best political leaders in the world. As a student of politics, I am interested in what they have to say; as a teacher of politics, I am interested in their communication and presentation styles.”
Do your students teach you anything? “Absolutely. In political science, there is rarely one right answer to a question. There are multiple approaches, perspectives and theories, and there is vigorous debate among and between them. Thus, students have an opportunity to join in and contribute to the discussion. Each student brings his or her own background, knowledge and life experiences to the classroom, which makes for a great learning experience for me and everyone else.”
Favorite TV teacher? “The last TV program I watched was The Wire. There wasn’t much teaching going on there, although I did gain a deeper understanding of the challenges facing Baltimore high school teachers after watching Season 4.”
Students say: “Sunil is a gift to the Hopkins community. Every student should take his courses, or have him as a TA, before they graduate.”
“For Sunil, teaching is much more than just the presentation of facts and theories; he sincerely wants each and every one of his students to engage with the material and learn.”
“Sunil was always eager, even after he was no longer specifically a teaching assistant for any of my classes, to help me find resources and suggest directions I could pursue while I was writing research papers of my own for other classes.”
Patricia Sayre Graham, coordinator of Keyboard Studies, Peabody Conservatory
Unless they are piano majors or jazz students, all incoming undergraduates at the Peabody Conservatory—whether singers, instrumentalists or composers—play the piano for Patricia Graham, who expertly assigns them to Keyboard Studies sections at the start of the academic year. Graham came to Peabody in 1967 to earn her Master of Music degree in piano performance and, upon graduation, was asked to set up one of the first piano labs at a conservatory. The lab now has 12 Clavinovas (digital pianos made by Yahama) plus the instructor’s station, and most of the 15 sections—seven of them taught by Graham herself—scheduled this past year for freshmen and second-year students were full.
The classes meet twice a week, and students also have a weekly one-on-one coaching session. In class, the instructor demonstrates a piece, then circulates as the students practice it wearing their headphones and plugs in a second headphone to hear how a particular student is doing. Over the years Graham has mastered the art of diagnosing and responding to the different problems that students encounter. “I want everyone to succeed,” she says. “They can make progress from wherever they are.”
You have said that about 50 percent of Keyboard Studies is learning to play the piano. What is the other 50 percent? “The Keyboard Studies curriculum places a strong emphasis on developing a solid foundation in music theory and musicianship. Skills such as chord progressions, melody harmonization and improvisation reinforce knowledge presented in classroom theory. The purpose is to develop greater fluency in the musical language, much as one would develop fluency in German or any other language.”
Students complete their final project in front of the whole class. What makes it so effective? “The final project in second year provides an experience of what it is like to be the accompanist, to reverse the usual performance roles. Every student selects repertoire and invites another classmate to be the soloist. We often hear unusual arrangements of works, such as a Schubert Lied with violin soloist rather than voice. For most students this performance results in their best piano playing. They practice to learn their part well enough that they can listen to the soloist, to play with similar dynamic shape and a sense of the direction and flow of the music.”
Do you have a favorite instrument other than the piano? “In my next life, I would love to be a cellist so that I could play those beautiful parts in Brahms.”
A student says: “She made sure that we were all exposed to real piano music, so the class felt that we were playing more than just exercises. My keyboard skills improved a great deal last year because of her patience and clear explanations.”
A colleague says: “From the day I began working here, Pat has taught literally every one of my students to think using the keyboard, and I am convinced that the knowledge and, even more important, the things she values both as a musician and as a human being show up in students of hers I am highly fortunate to ‘inherit.’”
School of Education
Mavis Sanders, professor, Teacher Development and Leadership
If anyone understands the stresses public school teachers face day in and day out, it would be Mavis Sanders. After all, Sanders, a professor in the School of Education’s Department of Teacher Development and Leadership, comes from a family of teachers, including her mother and three of her four sisters. After completing her doctorate in 1995 at Stanford University, she began her career at Johns Hopkins as an associate research scientist at the Center for Social Organization of Schools.
She has been teaching the School of Education’s School, Family and Community Collaboration for School Improvement course for the past six years, and is passionate about the research she has done over the years demonstrating the importance of family and community involvement for the success of all students, but especially poor students and students of color. “Student achievement improves significantly when students feel supported by their school, family and community,” she says. Among her many writings, Sanders is co-author of School, Family and Community Partnerships: Your Handbook for Action, which provides tools and information to assist schools, districts and state departments of education to plan and implement programs of partnership.
What challenges do you face teaching your course? “Having worked closely with public school teachers for nearly two decades, I know the accountability and curriculum demands placed on them. I also know that what I teach in the course about reaching out to parents and community will help their students do better in school. In class, I try to build teachers’ capacity to work collaboratively with students, families and communities by first confronting many of their assumptions. Teachers always think it’s harder than it is to involve parents and community, and they are usually pleasantly surprised at the results of their efforts.”
Who was your favorite teacher? “I have always loved school and have benefited from the professional dedication of a number of outstanding teachers from preschool through graduate school. But, at the risk of sounding cliched, I would have to honestly say that my parents have been my favorite, most constant and most committed teachers.”
What was your most memorable classroom moment? “As part of a field-based project, [the student] developed an interactive homework assignment that promoted parent and student communication about positive character traits. The interactive homework assignment had a home-to-school communication component for family feedback. The [student] teacher teared up when describing the comments she had received from [her] students’ families. She was so moved by how appreciative the parents were for the work that she was doing with the students and the progress they had made—it moved the entire class.”
How would you describe your teaching style? “If I had to choose a label, I would describe [it] as guided constructivism. I try to make it as student-centered and interactive as possible. I also try to design assignments that give students an opportunity to apply what they are reading and discussing in class in their professional settings.”
What have you learned from your students? “To be more open to learning and change because that’s how we get better with time. I’ve seen them grow in their professional knowledge and skills, and I hope that they have seen that same growth in me.”
Students say: “I personally appreciated her facilitating our field-based projects by traveling to our work sites and getting to know the physical environment and context of the work we do and how it impacts our perspectives and final assignments. As an academic adviser, Dr. Sanders lives and teaches by example, providing accurate and insightful perspective into our classes, career aspirations and personal and professional development.”
“Dr. Sanders fosters collaboration in the classroom by encouraging us to express ourselves through our own thoughts and opinions. Her personality allows her to open up the lines of communication and put her students at ease through classroom discussions.”
School of Medicine
Danelle Cayea, assistant professor and director of the Medical Student Elective in the Division of Geriatric Medicine and Gerontology
To say that only one person inspired geriatrician Danelle Cayea in becoming an educator would be entirely untrue. “There were really a lot of people involved in my development,” Cayea says, “but I was very inspired by my primary mentors in fellowship. They really helped me see that a great teacher comes from skill practice and not just an engaging personality.”
Cayea acknowledges that her mother, a seventh- and eighth-grade teacher, also played a role because she got to witness firsthand the life of a teacher. Her mom never “pushed her” to become a teacher, she says, but both parents were ardent supporters of her interest in the field of education. “They even bought me a chalkboard when I was a kid!”
Recently, Cayea’s grandmother reminded her about her dreams at a very young age of becoming a doctor. “This was odd because there are no other doctors in my family,” Cayea says. “My grandmother also told me my family thought I would forget about it at some point.” On the contrary, Cayea never wavered in her dreams of becoming a doctor, or her passion for teaching.
Her first exposure to caring for the elderly was during her high school years, working as a dietary aide at a nursing home. “There are so many people and things that influenced me in becoming a geriatrician, but perhaps the most formative experience I had was when I worked at the nursing home. There I became really interested in the variability of the aging experience,” Cayea says.
In medical school, not many of her colleagues considered following a career in treating older patients. Cayea realized, though, that caring for the elderly and their myriad complex, multifaceted health problems was precisely what she wanted to do. “There are so many things I love about working with older adults. They frequently have a unique perspective on the world that I love learning about. Many older people are very robust, but many are also frailer and sicker,” she says. “I love the challenge of dealing with the complexity and the unique skill set involved with what these patients bring. At the same time, I also feel a sense of advocacy for older adults who may be more vulnerable due to their physical, cognitive or social problems, and feel compelled to help them.”
Today, Cayea spends most of her time devoted to education, primarily at the medical student level. She does examine older adults in a geriatrics outpatient clinic and spends some time as an inpatient attending physician, but most of her time involves course administration, teaching and educational research.
Cayea was pleasantly surprised to learn that she had won this year’s teaching award. ”I wasn’t really expecting it,” she says. “I share this honor with my primary mentors in fellowship, who were very influential in how I teach. They really helped me see that a great teacher comes from skill practice and not just an engaging personality.”
What’s your teaching style? “My hope is that I create a teaching environment in which there is both the right amount of educational tension that produces learning and enough safety and support that learners feel comfortable trying new skills and bringing their full selves to the encounter. Most of my teaching focuses on development of clinical skills, so when possible I try to be learner-centered and develop relationships with the students, as that can optimize that type of learning.”
Do your students teach you anything? “All the time. Working with committed, intelligent people inspires me to re-examine my own clinical and teaching practice constantly. They also teach me humility, as they frequently think about problems in ways that force me to reconsider what I think I know.”
Best class you ever taught? “I teach and run a variety of courses at the medical school, all focused on acquisition of clinical skills. They all present a unique set of challenges and rewards, but anytime I get to see students do things that directly help patients that they had not done before is really meaningful.”
Students say: “Dr. Cayea’s teaching style was very effective. She asks challenging questions without being intimidating. She made great use of bedside teaching and really encouraged us to learn directly from our patients. She gave extremely helpful feedback, with many specific suggestions for improvement where needed.”
“I view Dr. Cayea as a model of patient care and professionalism. She was always extremely compassionate, patient and respectful of her patients and their families. She always seemed to have the ‘big picture’ in mind for her patients, synthesizing medical issues with family, social and financial concerns.”
School of Nursing
Sharon Olsen, assistant professor, Acute and Chronic Care
Recognized for: Excellence in graduate teaching
Sharon Olsen never had any doubt that she wanted to be a nurse. Her aunt was a nurse, and when Olsen saw the compassion and care her aunt had for her patients, she knew she wanted to devote her life to providing that same compassion and care. Becoming a registered nurse wasn’t enough for Olsen: She wanted to expand her knowledge and devoted her studies and efforts to oncology, and specifically breast cancer, which affected more than 200,000 women in 2007 (the most recent data available). Her years of study and research earned her a master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin, Madison; a post-master’s nurse practitioner certificate from Johns Hopkins; and a doctorate from The Catholic University of America. She holds a joint appointment in Oncology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Her clinical and research interests focus specifically on cancer prevention and screening and cancer genomics. Olsen has said it is important for tomorrow’s nurses to understand the interaction between genes and behavior in order to “provide personalized, equitable, effective and high-quality nursing care.”
What does it mean to be a nurse? “Nursing today is hard work. The best nurses are able to connect with their patients, inspire their colleagues and maximize the provision of safe high-quality care in an environment that is driven by the bottom line and an ever-expanding litany of technology and treatment innovation.”
What have you learned from your students? “My students teach me so much about what is meaningful to them. Together, we work to translate theoretical academic knowledge, which is critical for today’s advanced practice nurses to master, to make it relevant for practice.”
Who was your favorite teacher? “Nancy Diekelmann was my adviser for my master’s thesis and taught me that good teachers facilitate learning, which she modeled by setting up collaborative and accountable learning in the classroom. She also taught me to look for and appreciate the serendipity in learning.”
What is your most memorable classroom experience? “In the spring 2011 semester, it was the last day of class, and the students were discussing issues around conflict and negotiation. At one point, I found myself sitting with them in the middle of the classroom listening as they took the tenets they had read in their homework assignment and used them to help their colleagues work through several difficult communication encounters in their practices. The experience was the embodiment of a community of teaching and learning.”
Students say: “Her passion to ‘grow’ students is humbling and inspiring, and it makes us feel like we are her only priority.”
“She saw my worth both as a person and a professional. [Olsen] has motivated me to greater achievement.”
Nicole Warren, assistant professor, Community-Public Health
Recognized for: Excellence in undergraduate teaching
Health care, much less nursing, never occurred to Nicole Warren as a professional career choice until she joined the Peace Corps. After being sworn in as a volunteer and three months of crash courses in local language and maternal and child health, she was unceremoniously deposited in a village about 8 miles off a paved road in Mali, West Africa. Not long after, Warren realized she wanted to work with childbearing women, and nursing was the way to do it. She pursued a master’s in public health at Johns Hopkins and another master’s and a doctorate at the University of Illinois, Chicago. As a certified nurse-midwife, she has cared for refugee and immigrant women in the United States and is a founding member of the Midwest Network on Female Genital Cutting, an organization that aims to improve reproductive health care in countries of resettlement for women who have been affected by the practice. Her doctoral research, which explored the experiences of rural midwives in Mali, led her to create Mali Midwives, a not-for-profit organization that supports continuing education for rural midwives in that country.
What does it mean to be a nurse? “Being a nurse is all about making connections, facilitating and leading. We connect clients to care, providers to clients’ perspectives, community to hospital, research to practice, plans to actions and problems to solutions. You name it, we bring it together. At its best, nursing pulls health care’s critical pieces together, makes it coherent and ensures it can function. Nurses need to be inventors, mechanics and guardians.”
What have you learned from your students? “Wow, where to begin? I’ve learned you have to know your stuff and follow through on your commitments. It’s important to be comfortable learning together. The most important thing I learned is it’s not enough to help students recognize a need for change in practice; you have to help them develop tools to make that change happen, which is the challenging part.”
Who was your favorite teacher? “It’s a tie between Frank Henderson and Gifford Doxee, who were both professors of political science at Ohio University. One screamed in class, the other practically whispered, but they shared a passion for their areas of interest. I still care about the issues they introduced me to because my professors convinced me they mattered.”
What was your most memorable classroom experience? “[It] occurred when a student approached me after a lecture. She was a member of a cultural group that I had focused on during the class, and I was very aware of her presence. The student told me she was dreading the lecture, certain that it would be more of the same offensive commentary she had heard before. But instead, she thanked me, saying she felt relieved that I had brought out another side of the issue and presented it more fairly than the student had previously heard. For me, that was a huge honor.”
Students say: “Nicole’s enthusiasm about all things related to pregnancy, childbirth and women’s health is contagious to her students. She brings a candor to her teaching that is refreshingly honest, informative and at times hilarious.”
“[Warren is] a passionate and energetic professor and committed to the professional development of her students.”
Whiting School of Engineering
Lester Su, associate research professor, Mechanical Engineering
Lester Su took his first plane trip at age 6 and immediately decided he wanted to be a pilot. “Soon thereafter,” he recalls, “I read that pilots had to have 20/20 vision, and I already had Coke-bottle glasses, so I decided I’d be OK designing airplanes instead.” That put him on course to become an aeronautical engineer. “My book reports, class projects, etc., pretty much all had something to do with airplanes,” he says.
At the University of Chicago, he majored in physics and during his second year became a teaching assistant for an introductory calculus class. “That turned my world completely upside down,” he says. “For a narcissist, teaching is like nectar—you talk, the students listen. You talk more, they still have to listen. You can ramble, be boring, be unfunny, digress, it doesn’t matter. I was totally hooked. After that I still wanted to be an engineer, but now I wanted to be a professor, too.”
He attended graduate school at Michigan, was a postdoctoral fellow at Texas and Stanford, spent a year on Capitol Hill as a fellow with the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, was a professor for a year at Wisconsin and then in 2002 came to Johns Hopkins, where his wife, Allison Okamura, was a Mechanical Engineering faculty member. Since then, he has taught introductory classes in fluids, mechanical engineering and mechanics, and a graduate course in his research area called Mixing and Combustion.
Describe your teaching style. “My style is ‘Me, me, me.’ I start with the assumption that I can explain anything verbally and go from there. So my lectures are just that—lectures. The paradox is, I never was particularly adept at learning from lectures myself. I really needed to look over my notes and texts later to absorb material. So, nowadays, I take pains to help students take good notes by being as clear as I can on the board, and I try to be as accessible outside of class as possible for those students who need reinforcement.”
Who is your role model? “At Chicago, I took the required Classical Mechanics course from Jim Cronin, who had won the Nobel Prize in 1980. He was still a busy and productive researcher with a big group and major field experiments, but he was also an incredibly committed teacher. He graded labs, exams, even some homework himself, and he showed up to our lab sessions and helped us with the apparatus. We were all, naturally, in awe of him when the course started, but that awe gradually changed to awestruck gratitude for his dedication. I vowed then never to get too big to devote time to teaching well. Luckily, I have been engaged in a sufficiently slow rise to the middle of my field that this problem hasn’t come up.”
What have you learned from your students? “We have some amazing students here. I’ve certainly learned new approaches to problems from students in my classes and new ways to think about research from my research advisees. I want all of my students and advisees to do more than I have, which isn’t a particularly high bar, but still the number of my students who have gone on to great graduate schools or jobs is really gratifying.”
Describe for me the best class you ever taught. “The best single class I taught was the first time I realized that I was amazing at describing boundary layer growth. I explain that stuff extremely clearly and draw an unbelievably clear figure to support the explanations. Mind you, this is just what the voice in my head tells me.”
If you had to guess, why would you say you were selected for this honor? “Accepting that it is impossible to answer this question without sounding smug, let’s just say that I have unwavering command of the superficial teaching arts. I speak loudly, I am painstaking with my chalkboard presentation, I am particular about the formatting of my assignments and exams, I maintain meticulous course websites, and I make a point to grade as transparently as possible. The material that issues from my mouth may not always make a great deal of sense, but at least my courses are organized.”
Anything else you think I should know to get as complete a picture of you as possible? “I like to get to know my students outside of class. On midterms I’ve always included a set of trivia questions on some theme like history, sports, music, geography, etc., and I take the top scorers each time to lunch. Only one student has gotten a free lunch every time he was eligible. Otherwise, I get a nice diverse group each time.
“As instructors, we naturally get to wondering exactly how our students ended up choosing to come here. That curiosity led me to the undergrad Admissions Office, where I’ve been helping to read applications for the past couple of years. Admissions is a fascinating and rich world, and I’m intrigued to continue to learn more about it.”
Students say: “Lester Su was one of the reasons I chose Hopkins. I first met Lester during an admitted students day in the late spring of my senior year of high school. During my freshman year, I had the pleasure of being in not one but two classes with Lester. Not only is he an excellent lecturer and teacher, he has a unique affability that serves him well as an exemplary professor.”
“Lester gave great lectures, was always organized and truly cared about whether his students learned the subject that he taught. He also wore black on test days, which was awesome. He was always happy to help students outside of class as well, with letters of recommendation, etc. He also made a standing offer the first day of class, inviting any student who wanted to go to lunch with him on Fridays.”
“Lester almost always has his door open when he is in his office. If he is not in his office, he will have a note outside on his blackboard saying where he is and when he will be back. This just emphasizes that Lester is the most approachable professor and adviser that I have had. Lester’s ability to lecture is second to none. He is so clear when he talks about the material. This is largely due to the fact that he has prepared for the course so well and is incredibly knowledgeable about what he is teaching. He makes his courses incredibly fair and at the same time makes sure that students come away from the course with as much understanding of the material as possible.”