By Cristina Paolozzi, May 6 2021—
This year, the Student’s Union (SU) announced 40 recipients of the annual Teaching Excellence Awards (TEA). These recipients honoured faculty members, instructors and teaching assistants, who were able to deliver exceptional instruction in a more than difficult academic year. The shift to online learning certainly wasn’t easy, and in a statement, Semhar Abraha, former vice-president academic, also recognized this.
“This year has been extremely challenging for teaching and learning at all levels,” Abraha said. “Everyone has had to adapt and sacrifice in different ways. We are proud to abe able to highlight teachers who went above and beyond to support their students, especially during this difficult year. We hope these teachers know how much they are appreciated.”
One of the winners from this year, Dr. Annette Tézli, a professor of Sociology, spoke with the Gauntlet about her experiences teaching online and some of the successes and challenges this year has presented.
Gauntlet: How has it been for you teaching during the pandemic?
Annette Tézli: The last year was the most difficult in my entire teaching career, which began back in 2009. We had to pivot to remote delivery with very short notice, with limited resources and I had no training in online pedagogies whatsoever. I was working with students who confronted all kinds of barriers: working essential jobs in the midst of a pandemic, illness, access to a suitable workspace, access to textbooks from abroad, access to technology and a stable internet connection and lack of access to supports, especially during the early stages of the pandemic, just to name a few. That was often very frustrating and once more illustrated how limited the resources and how insurmountable the barriers to participation and success are for some students. My workload increased dramatically (even though I didn’t think that was possible) between finding ways to support students, revising my classes to deliver them online, and familiarizing myself with new teaching and learning technologies and online pedagogies. In some ways it felt like being a novice instructor again and starting over from scratch. I think it was a very terrifying and exhausting year for all of us. That all said, there were also very rewarding moments. In some classes we were able to come together as a community and it was amazing to see students support each other in their learning, but also in coping with life. We shared some good laughs, interesting ideas and created a safe space to vent our frustrations. Some students produced amazing work, and I was really impressed by their efforts to embrace new technologies to share their knowledge with others.
G: Since the Teaching Excellence Awards are student selected, why do you think it is important to recognize quality instruction at the university level through a program like this?
AT: The Students’ Union Teaching Excellence Awards has always been very meaningful to me. Other awards typically require self- or colleague nomination. Usually, you demonstrate your teaching effectiveness by way of a teaching dossier, in which you describe your pedagogy, your teaching practices and provide evidence of their effectiveness, for example student feedback. Your approach to teaching must work for the nominator and the selection committee. The SU’s TEA is different in that your teaching has to work for the students. Students initiate the nomination process by writing a nomination letter, and the SU then generates additional information from the rest of the class. I am deeply appreciative of any student who takes time out of their busy schedules to participate in the process. We receive very little constructive feedback on the quality of our teaching from students, and I think the SU’s TEA provides me with that feedback. For me it is also important to know that the thought, time, and effort I am investing into teaching is valuable and valued, and it motivates me to continue providing students with the best education possible.
G: What are some of the strategies you’ve found most successful teaching online?
AT: I haven’t had the opportunity to fully process the last year yet, but I will tell you this. I learned a lot about the complexities of teaching and learning. While not everyone agrees, I think asynchronous lectures are valuable in that they provide some students with a lot of flexibility, especially those who face barriers to access, such as those working irregular shifts, students with care responsibilities or those living will illness or disabilities. For the very large classes (so 200-400 students), I supplemented asynchronous lectures with weekly, hour-long casual Zoom meetings to chat about the course material covered that week. It wasn’t a huge hit in terms of numbers, but the students who did attend regularly were able to connect with classmates and with me on a level that is difficult to accomplish in face-to-face large classes. We had amazing conversations and to me that was a very rewarding teaching experience. A special thanks to all the students who made that happen. For some of the smaller, upper-level classes, I gave students a lot of freedom to explore topics they were genuinely interested in, which produced really interesting research. I also encouraged them to think of creative ways to share their knowledge with others. Some created websites, others podcasts, some produced really engaging videos and recorded presentations, yet others produced information material such as brochures. It was clear that students were really invested in the process and the quality of their work was amazing. I think holding office hours over Zoom was a hit as well. My office hours were always well-attended but holding them over Zoom made them even more accessible.
G: Do you think you will adapt some of these strategies if/when we return to in-person learning?
AT: I think I learned a lot about teaching over the last year and the pandemic forced me to rethink my approach to teaching. I will definitely keep the strategies that seemed to be working for students, for example different ways of engaging with the course content. I will definitely offer virtual office hours in the future to make them accessible to all. In the past, I would hold office hours twice a week and a long line would form outside my door. Looking back, that was not at all respectful of students’ time, but also not very effective. Over the last year I started using a scheduling tool so students can book specific slots during office hours. I can prepare for each student in advance and the process has become much more predicable, so that is definitely something I will maintain. In the winter semester I introduced a lecture-free week in March for all my classes, because in my experience the term break is so early in the semester, that students are starting to feel burned out in March. That is also something I will keep. As instructors we have the flexibility to create a schedule that is sustainable, and I found adding a lecture-free week during which students could focus on other things was very helpful.
The SU has been recognizing the Teaching Excellence Awards since 1975 and this year they received 1,356 nominations from students. To see the complete list of winners click here.