Office of the Provost

August 8, 2017

Changing UW students’ lives through exceptional teaching

Jerry Baldasty

I am in awe, and ever so thankful, for the remarkable work of the people who teach at the University of Washington. These are the people who help change students’ lives and fulfill the University’s mission to educate the next generation of leaders and innovators. This is why one of the most moving moments of the academic year for me is when I present the Distinguished Teaching Awards in spring quarter. These awards recognize excellence, innovation and creativity in teaching.

This matters because it is through teaching that we, as a public institution, make a difference in students’ lives by providing access and excellent educational experience for students.

These teachers are simply awe-inspiring. While their official CVs and bios give basic information, their nomination forms really tell their stories. In those forms, their students describe the influence excellent teachers have.

One student noted that Arbella Bet-Shlimon, assistant professor of History, introduced her to an entire field of study.

“I recently declared as a Near Eastern Languages and Civilization major, in large part because of how interesting your two classes were. … I intended to major in political science, but found that politics, history and identity as it related to the Middle East is what I greatly enjoy learning about. … Without your classes, I’m not sure I would have discovered something that I am so happy to be studying.”

Any faculty member can tell you that teaching is much more difficult than it looks. It’s not enough to know about your subject. You have to explain your subject in ways people can understand. Even if you’ve taught a class before, you can’t just stand in front of students and read old lecture notes. Instead, you have to really think anew about your goals for the class, how to talk about the content, and most importantly how to engage students. It’s time well-spent.

Our faculty are dedicated to trying new things to engage and inspire their students. Often they succeed. Sometimes they fail. They always try again. They know that every class session matters, and it’s incredibly important to pull students in every time. Our faculty help one another. They share their expertise and knowledge with colleagues throughout the UW and those at other universities.

Teaching isn’t just about time in the classroom. For the faculty, the work continues beyond the class period and the quarter as they mentor students, often spending hours and hours writing letters of recommendation and guiding students along their academic and career paths.

For me, one of the major highlights of my career came in 2000 when I was honored to receive the Distinguished Teaching Award. Both Ana Mari and I consider the Distinguished Teaching Award to be among the most meaningful achievements in our UW careers. And we are in excellent company.

One thing our faculty have in common is that they constantly encourage students to take charge of their learning – something that will last them a lifetime.

“My philosophy,” recipient Kristi Straus, lecturer in the College of the Environment, says, “is to approach my students as individuals capable of more than they think possible.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Learn more about this year’s Distinguished Teaching Award recipients.