At the University of Toronto, great teachers aren’t merely experts in their field. They’re skilled in imparting their knowledge to new generations of scholars and researchers – a process, they say, that often begins with learning about their students.
Associate Professor Maria Assif says she prioritizes what’s been dubbed “’relationship-rich classrooms,’ in which students and faculty build personal connections, student-student interactions foster educationally meaningful relationships and the magic of one classroom extends to other classrooms and communities.”
Assif was among the top teachers – including recipients of the President’s Teaching Award, the OCUFA Teaching Award, the University of Toronto Teaching Fellowship, the Global Educator Award, the 3M Teaching Fellowship, and the Early Career Teaching Award – celebrated recently at the Excellence in Teaching reception hosted by Vice-President and Provost Cheryl Regehr.
“COVID-19 forced us to look at pedagogy in new ways – to adjust our sense of what is possible, to reconsider how we teach, and to think more deeply about how our students learn,” Regehr said. “One could say that it made us all be more like the award-winners that I am so pleased to be celebrating.”
U of T News spoke with several of the award winners about their approach to teaching, how the pandemic affected the way they work in the classroom and their advice for other educators.
Assistant professor, teaching stream, Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work
Early Career Teaching Award
“Positive relationships have always been a central theme in my educational experiences. When I reflect on my earliest educational experiences, I was fond of those teachers who I perceived as having an interest in me, as a person. It is for this reason that I believe fervently in an educational alliance with students.
The pandemic gave rise to social circumstances in students’ lives that had to be negotiated with their virtual classroom learning. This meant that there were many conversations with students outside of class time and office hours. Online learners still require human interaction and personalized support.
Teaching is not simply about the transmission of knowledge. It should be fun for the teacher as well as for the students. Teachers are expected to be active listeners, provide constructive feedback, stimulate thought, and choreograph the course content so that it is accessible, personal, relevant, and meaningful for the students.”
Associate professor, teaching stream, department of English, U of T Scarborough
President’s Teaching Award
“As an educator, I prioritize what Peter Felten and Leo Lambert describe as ‘relationship-rich classrooms,’ in which students and faculty build personal connections, student-student interactions foster educationally meaningful relationships and the magic of one classroom extends to other classrooms and communities.
I have been integrating technology more comprehensively and deliberately in the classroom in ways that I have never previously imagined pre-pandemic. I have also started to prioritize student mental health support in lesson planning and assessment – a pedagogical decision I have kept post-pandemic as well.
These are tips that have made a difference at varying stages of my teaching career: be present in the moment; listen with intent and care to students; keep a daily journal where you reflect on your teaching; remember that teaching is a privilege, and your pedagogical decisions impact students’ learning and lives; consider a daily, self-care routine, trust your instincts when you feel the need for a break; attend pedagogical development sessions; and stay connected with colleagues who share a passion for and a commitment to teaching and learning.”
Assistant Professor, department of health and society, U of T Scarborough
Early Career Teaching Award
“The essence of my approach comes down to creating experiential and active learning opportunities that allow students to thrive, which includes creating work-integrated learning courses where students have gone on to receive prizes, prestigious conference presentation invitations and awards. I also design and implement various pedagogical innovations such as the BioRacer board games, animated storylines, entrepreneurial pitches, reflective writing, the global health textbook and other active engagement learning opportunities that cater to students’ diverse learning preferences.
I evolved my approach with the pandemic from work-integrated learning to Global Classrooms. For example, in 202I, I launched a new global classroom course, collaborating with the University of Ibadan, several NGOs and eight middle schools.
The values one has for teaching are as important as the techniques one brings to the classroom. I believe that education is not just about the methods and pedagogical innovations I implement but about the compassion and value I have for students. It is challenging to have an impact unless you genuinely care about your students’ goals.
Assistant professor, teaching stream, department of anthropology, U of T Mississauga
Early Career Teaching Award
“I think that teaching is an exchange of knowledge where everyone has something to offer. I would like to see different knowledges systems valued in the university. I encourage students to reflect on concepts as they relate to their own positionality and life experiences. Everyone learns by questioning what is valued as knowledge in educational institutions and the traditional research methods upon which knowledge is produced.
Online learning during the pandemic made relationship building a challenge. Relational reciprocity forms the foundation for community-engaged learning. We tried to give students different online spaces to connect with us and reduced the burden of course load assessments as they struggled with the social isolation and an unfamiliar learning environment.
I think everyone recognizes we are living in a precarious and changing world where everyone has easy access to information. Our role as educators has changed to prioritize critical thinking and dialogue over rote learning.”
Professor, department of sociology and Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy, Faculty of Arts & Science
Global Educator Award
“I see my role in the classroom as offering an arc for the course, while encouraging a sense of curiosity from students week to week. That also means leaving just enough on the table for students to be thinking of the next question the following week. I also try to encourage curiosity by providing students with multiple perspectives on the content that we cover, ranging from empirical research to legal cases and journalistic accounts.
Outside the classroom, I have also tried to support this same kind of curiosity by helping to build new programs. This includes new undergraduate study opportunities for problem-solving and experiential learning, and international partnerships for graduate study with institutions elsewhere. The thread running through these, for me, is a focus on giving students the opportunity to learn from several perspectives throughout their time here. To me, that sense of curiosity is what helps to foster an engaged citizenship with the world around us.
If I think about advice I give to myself, my feeling is that it comes down to trying to take the course myself as I teach it each time. Overall, it is about allowing the course material to offer us some surprise and insight and communicating that in the classroom. Those moments in the course might be less tightly packaged, but I hope students see that we are working through the material together.”