By Deidre Ashe
Committed to the Course
This year’s COCE Excellence in Teaching Award for Faculty winners understand the needs of Southern New Hampshire University’s adult student population. Very well.
Ellen Bluestone was in graduate school at a time, she says, when it wasn’t common for women to be studying and raising a family.
“I felt that there was a total absence of support,” she said. “I remember I was the only person I knew who had a family. And I really wished that somebody would understand that I lived a life and that I needed a little bit of support. So instead of dwelling on that in my own particular case, it made me feel wonderful to be able to do this for students because I know how difficult it is to combine your real life with academics.”
And Clare Greenlaw put off grad school to be a legal guardian for his mom, who had become ill. He continues to understand students’ needs to find a work-life balance, even as an instructor.
“To me, it’s incredibly important not to forget that and to realize that I want them to know I do have two teenagers at home,” he said. “I do struggle to meet deadlines and get that extra reading in. But if we stick together, and we work as a collaborative, which I think SNHU, and COCE in particular, is better at than a lot of environments I’ve seen … (our students will) feel that somebody is trying to understand them.”
‘Learning Is Inherently Risky’
Risk has a history of weaving its way through Greenlaw’s career.
His experiences as a grad student later in life, learning from adjunct instructors who taught for passion over paycheck, led him to his calling. About 10 years ago, when he wanted to leave business for higher education, he said to his wife, “I want to sell everything, and I want to teach.”
Now, as one of Southern New Hampshire University’s 2017 Excellence in Teaching Award recipients, he sees the risks his students take every day.
“My teaching philosophy involves an acknowledgement that learning is inherently risky,” said Greenlaw, a lead faculty member for SNHU’s undergraduate international business program.
He stressed the role of making mistakes and acknowledging them: Do it now, in the classroom, so you’re not costing your employer later. With risk may come some failure, but the resulting lessons may be even more beneficial.
“Almost half of our students coming in have participated in higher education, but not completed their goal,” Greenlaw said. “And I think if you understand what motivates the student, why they’re there, and how they perceive risk of learning and becoming an independent learner, that is a lifelong goal. But once they have it, it allows them to tackle almost any profession, any family situation.”
And Greenlaw – who completed both his MBA and ABD with SNHU – finds the ultimate satisfaction in seeing students’ risks pay off, even long after they’ve graduated.
“There’s nothing more exciting than having a student contact you years later either with a question or just to check in and tell you where they’ve been and what they’ve accomplished, because in some cases, it’s been things we talked about five or six years ago,” he said. “But they’re finally there, and it was important enough to them to let somebody know that they did make it. Somebody who was with them along the way.”
In an online environment, some college instructors may struggle when it comes to making the learning experience personal. Not Bluestone. Her level of emotional engagement with students exceeds what’s expected – making her an ideal choice to be recognized as one of Southern New Hampshire University’s 2017 Excellence in Teaching Award recipients.
“I try to individualize things as much as I can,” said the M.A. in English and Creative Writing instructor. In reviewing her students’ weekly discussion board posts, “I go through what they’ve written, and I find those points where I think they can go further with their reasoning, and I ask them a series of questions. … I think that those questions create a level of excitement.”
The challenges she offers her students aren’t only meant to have them think more about that week’s topic, either.
“I think just knowing that you’re an individual and that you’ve been noticed in the class makes a huge difference in an online environment,” Bluestone said. She takes great effort to create a “spirit of community.”
And just as her students evolve during their time at SNHU, so, too, has Bluestone. Her educational mantra of “emotional engagement” meant one thing in a brick-and-mortar classroom, more focused on her literature expertise. With online, however, “it seemed to apply to every aspect of the online classroom – to the nurturing of students’ relationships with each other, students’ relationships with the online platform and students’ relationships with me.”
So while Bluestone is creating a positive, supportive community for her English and creative writing students, she says SNHU is doing the same for her.
“I think that’s one of those things that’s made it so pleasant,” she said. “And I don’t think I would have been teaching here … if I didn’t feel that there was something special about working for this school.”