Wednesday, June 14, 2017

My commencement address

 Today (June 14th) I received the Laurier Teaching Award for Sustained Excellence at the Spring 2017 convocation. As the recipient of this award I was asked to address the graduating class of Biology students (and their guests). I decided that it would be a good opportunity to talk about how success does not necessarily come easily. Specifically I wanted to focus on my initial difficulties with teaching
(starts ~38min mark)

It is a great honour to be the recipient of this award and I would like to thank all the individuals who nominated, supported and selected my nomination. As the recipient of this award, it is my privilege to be asked to give the commencement address for the class of 2017. Convocation is an excellent opportunity not only to celebrate your accomplishments, and to imagine the next steps of your journey, but also a chance reflect back on the challenges you have faced to get where you are today, and how you were able to overcome them. For me, receiving this award is –as I said- a great honour, but it also somewhat ironic, because it was not too long ago that I had serious doubts about my future as an educator.

When I began my position at Laurier it was with a great deal excitement and (and an equal amount of nervousness). Landing a tenure-track position was an amazing opportunity, and one that I (initially) thought I was well prepared for.  Throughout my graduate studies I had had the opportunity to work as a teaching assistant, and I had taken numerous elective courses and workshops on effective teaching practices. So I thought I would be able to at least hold my own when it came to teaching my first class. How wrong I was.

The first time I taught BI111 – Biological Diversity and Evolution – it felt like everything went wrong. I had taken over the course from a recently departed and much beloved instructor who I looked to as a model for how to run the course. But in that first class nothing clicked, nothing worked. As I stood in front of my sometimes confused, often bored, and occasionally frustrated, students I felt like a failure both professionally and personally. At the end of the semester my departmental chair came into my office – closed the door- and told me how worried she was for my future prospects at Laurier based on my teaching evaluations.

Now I don’t know if you – the class of 2017 – can empathize: Your first year at Laurier and getting much worse grades than you had been expecting based on you previous experiences – but I hope you can use your imagination.

Talking about failure is tough. Which is strange because we all encounter it. Far too frequently reality doesn’t match our expectations. For me it took some time to figure out how to identify why my teaching wasn’t working, and to start upon a better path. But I did not find my way along that path alone.

I am extremely fortunate to be surrounded by many excellent instructors both in my department and across the Laurier campuses who I have looked to for mentorship, for guidance and for conversation. I am here today because of Faculty, friends, and family members who shared with me their experiences and advice. I am also here because of some of the most important feedback I got was from my students on what they found effective, and what they found challenging. They inspired and encouraged me to take greater risks in my teaching. To imagine new approaches to learning about the amazing world in which we live, such as play-acting the process of secondary growth in eudicots, taking a busload of biostatistics students on a field trip to a literal field to collect their data, or learning the principles of Hardy-Weinberg equlibrium with thousands of playing cards (and the occasional pictures of cats). They helped me avoid getting discouraged if these experiments in teaching didn’t go as planned (which they sometimes did not).

And so here we are 6 years and roughly 4000 students later. I am on this stage because of the support of Laurier community and it is to them that I am eternally grateful. Class of 2017, today marks an important milestone in your lives.

For many of us in this room there will be challenges ahead, dark days in which you question your abilities and the path you have taken. Please remember you do not have to travel alone.  

Thank you

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