Leah Gibson
Staff Writer

It should come as no surprise to students, faculty, and staff which professor receives the Harry W. Nerhood Teaching Excellence Award each year, as their submissions and consensus nominate the professor selected. Oddly enough, those most shocked are the recipients themselves. 2018 winner, Professor Christina Scott, sums up this ironic phenomenon, exclaiming, “I was completely caught off guard!”

Whittier College’s Harry W. Nerhood award presents an opportunity to recognize influential professors who reflect the fundamental qualities of a successful teacher and make a difference in their respective communities. Nominees uphold high standards in their pedagogy, promote enthusiasm for learning and creative thought, demonstrate fairness in evaluation, provide a quality classroom environment, and positively and openly collaborate with students. Past winners demonstrate these traits within the value systems and thematics in their academic practices, relationships, and personal lives that make them successful, respected, and admired. 

Recipients of the Teaching Excellence Award display unanimous traits of empathy and prioritization of student needs. When asked about upholding these traits, Dr. Scott replied, “I try to never lose sight of how it felt to be a student, and keeping that perspective allows me to grow and change my teaching practice to meet the needs of my students.” Dr. Scott reflects on her experiences to better understand student needs as not only academics, but also humans.  By relating to the aspects of herself that she sees in them, her practices emphasize adaptability and the importance of human regard for mutual success in student-professor relationships. 

Professor Charles “Chuck” Hill, the 2014 winner, also highlighted his investment and concern for student well-being surrounding preparedness for their future and personal lives. Hill shared, “I make my courses meaningful to [my students’] lives as emerging adults. [ . . . ] I treat them with respect, and am understanding of the challenges they face.” Dr. Hill incorporates relevant material and practices that reflect a central goal of student betterment, elevated by how he accommodates students as individuals with obligations and conflicts outside of the classroom.

Exemplary professors aim to understand their students and be understood through their practices. Now retired, Professor Joyce Kaufman, the 2016 winner, provided insight on the success of her methodologies and relationships, saying, “I think my teaching style is a reflection of me — that is, my personality and [my] own interests. [ . . . ] Perhaps another element is that I truly loved teaching; I enjoyed what I was teaching, and [I] hope that the passion I have for the topics [ . . . ] came across to my students.” Enthusiasm for pedagogy conveys implicit aspects of professor identities sometimes missed outside the classroom context. Professors like Kaufman, who demonstrate their passion for learning, elevate the meaning of their work from a student perspective, influencing shared excitement and admiration that students develop for their professors. 

Seamlessly combining passions with careers comes with its trials, and the most successful professors emphasize maintaining balance in various aspects of their lives to uphold their responsibilities as effective mentors. Professor Brian Reed, the 2013 recipient of the Nerhood Award, remarked that balance was the most difficult aspect of being a professor. “One challenge is maintaining the right balance between the work and the rest of life. [Another] is being demanding and being accommodating of my students.” Meeting student needs while respecting personal limits offers the opportunity for healthy and functional student-professor relationships. Prof. Reed demonstrates this in his ability to stay present in his practices, and how he offers his best qualities to keep students engaged and excited. “It is important to maintain a sense of humor — and camaraderie — to preserve that sense of perspective,” he said.

Students see excellence in professors who provide leadership and mentorship, as the guidance and support a professor provides can be life-changing. The professors nominated for the Teaching Excellence Award attest to the role of mentorship in their lives and how it influences their pedagogies and student relationships. 2015 winner Professor Jeffrey Lutgen reflects on a professor from when he attended graduate school. He recalled,  “I used to sign up every quarter for whatever class [Professor Koch] was teaching, even if I didn’t need it, just to watch him teach. He had a beautiful way of explaining the most abstruse, impenetrable mathematical concepts in what he called ‘Kansas meat-and-potatoes’ language, and that’s something I’ve always strived to emulate.” The respect and admiration Prof. Lutgen holds for his own professor inspires his methodology today and demonstrates the importance of role models. Positive mentorship motivates people to become the best versions of themselves and influences them to pass these qualities onward as they shift from mentee to mentor.

The importance of the Teaching Excellence Award extends beyond recognizing professors for their accomplishments; it provides validation for teaching practices and methods. Professor Elizabeth Sage, the 2012 winner, attests to this: “If anything, [my nomination] made me more confident that what I was doing ‘worked’ and was appreciated for being useful, relevant, and maybe even compelling.” Open communication and recognition for their methodologies reinforce professors like Sage and ensure that their practices stay effective, dynamic, and helpful. Feedback and classroom collaboration optimize student and professor satisfaction and performance. 

Nominating a deserving professor for the Harry W. Nerhood Teaching Excellence Award is an optimal way to affirm and approve teaching practices, honoring professors who contribute positively to the Whittier College community. Students, faculty, and staff have until Monday, March 28 to submit their nominations, and a faculty and administration committee will make a final selection.

Featured Image: Courtesy of whittier.edu

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