When Don Wulff was 7 years old, his parents decided he and his two siblings would attend school in town, not the one-room schoolhouse they’d been attending. Twelve miles on horseback each day had simply become too hard. His mother, Elsie, bucked a county attorney who initially blocked the decision. After making clear to him where her kids would attend school, she then drove them a total of 64 miles each day, all on dirt roads in rural Montana.
“It inspired in us the need and desire to get an education,” said Wulff, who has won a David B. Thorud Leadership Award. Wulff is an associate dean in the UW Graduate School and directs the UW Center for Instructional Development and Research (CIDR).
Ann Q. Staton, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at Texas Woman’s University and Wulff’s dissertation adviser, said, “I have known Don Wulff for over 25 years and can say without hesitation that he embodies the essence of leadership. He continually envisions new possibilities, has the organizational expertise to facilitate skillful implementation of new initiatives and has earned the unwavering respect and loyalty of his colleagues.”
Wulff first learned about teaching and leadership when he not only watched instructor Gyda Pederson at the one-room schoolhouse in Big Timber, but taught and was taught by the eight other kids in the school.
By the time he was 20, Wulff had graduated from Montana State University and was teaching English, speech and theater to high school students in Roundup, Mont.
“My first year was horrible,” recalled Wulff. “I tried to befriend the students, and like many novice teachers, I focused more on content than on what students were actually learning.”
Nor did Wulff have a mentor, as the woman scheduled to supervise him had had a nervous breakdown, and her temporary replacement had been out of the classroom for years.
Order settled in, however, when he learned the boundaries between teacher and student. He also learned to define expectations and help students meet them. A quiet, gentle man who speaks carefully and thoughtfully, Wulff eventually spent 16 years as a high school English teacher before going to the UW for a doctorate in communication and instruction.
Relating to college students and their teachers became Wulff’s focus at the UW. In 1984, shortly before finishing the doctorate, Wulff joined CIDR as a staff consultant for instructional development. The same year, he won a UW Distinguished Teaching Award.
Much instruction in classroom methodology was handled by CIDR back then, said Wulff, as it was the only Universitywide resource for instructors aiming to improve their teaching. But as focus on the whole student has grown, good teaching methods have become expected. “A lot of people are asking questions about good teaching and good learning in a way they weren’t in 1984.”
It means Wulff and his colleagues encourage experiential learning. In a Shakespeare course, for example, students might see a play and interview one of the actors. Or explain aspects of the play to peers. “Try to get the students more actively engaged with the content more deeply than they would be if just sitting in their classroom,” Wulff said.
He explains relationships among students, content, professors and context in his most recent book, Aligning for Learning: Strategies for Teaching Effectiveness (Anker Publishing, 2005).
Wulff co-edited the book with senior colleagues at CIDR, including Associate Director Wayne Jacobson.
“Don’s scholarly work has given him great insight into the complexity of teaching well,” Jacobson said. He’s “highly effective at translating insights from his research into strategies instructors can readily apply and adapt in their classes.”
Wulff also goes out of his way, Jacobson said, to make sure his staff members are recognized, and doesn’t hesitate to pitch in. It’s not unusual to find Wulff cleaning up after a staff meeting or circulating a card for a staff member either celebrating an honor or suffering a loss.
A Shoreline resident, Wulff has two children and four grandchildren.