Dr. Darren Dahl and Dr. Simon Ellis have recently been named 2013 3M National Teaching Fellows. The award is the most prestigious recognition of teaching excellence in Canada. The Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (STLHE) and 3M Canada award up to 10 Fellowships each year, recognizing exceptional achievements and contributions to teaching, learning, and educational leadership at Canadian universities. 3M National Teaching Fellows embody the highest ideals of teaching excellence and scholarship. Dr. Dahl and Dr. Ellis join 12 other UBC professors who are 3M National Teaching Fellows.
Dr. Ellis, Associate Professor in Wood Science and Program Director of the Wood Products Processing Program, is also a UBC Killam Teaching Prize winner and is consistently rated by students in the Faculty of Forestry as one of the top-rated instructors. Dr. Ellis is very active in departmental and university-wide teaching and learning initiatives. At the departmental level, he chairs two committees – the Curriculum and Co-operative Education Committees in Wood Products Processing – and is largely responsible for guiding the curriculum design and structure for the entire program. And, at the university level, Dr. Ellis leads the development and implementation of the process of Peer Review of Teaching in Forestry.
We had the opportunity to ask Dr. Ellis a few questions about his teaching philosophy and experiences. Here’s what he had to say.
Q. What is your teaching philosophy? What do you enjoy most about teaching?
Simon Ellis (SE): As I indicated in my 3M nomination package, I cannot claim that I have always wanted to be a teacher. My interests in teaching grew out of my GTA experiences as a graduate student at UBC in the 80’s.
I have had the good fortune for most of my teaching at UBC to teach to relatively small classes. While I have developed my in-classroom teaching practice, have attended a variety of professional development workshops, and have applied many of the theories and techniques introduced, what continues to drive my desire to teach, at a very fundamental level, is my personal interaction with students and the satisfaction that both they and I experience when they reach a certain point of understanding in their learning. That point is where their understanding of the subject matter has crossed some threshold such they know that they understand the content being discussed, they know that understanding is not a temporary condition, and that they will have the confidence to apply that understanding in future situations.
As my teaching career developed I started to get just as much, if not more, satisfaction in my involvement with students having those same realizations about their learning processes as distinct from the subject content which they were learning. I have come to appreciate and understand the wide range of learning styles exhibited by students with different backgrounds and experiences. It is when students from across those different backgrounds begin to reflect upon their learning process and understand how I can help them or they can help themselves to learn better that I truly think that I have helped them as a teacher (less so than in the processes of teaching them about the anatomy of different wood species or the attributes of different wood products – the topics of some of my courses). While students seldom have epiphanies about their learning processes it is still very rewarding to observe the incremental growth as students gradually develop their personal learning style in part due to contributions that I may have made.
In my classes, while I am often covering content in terms of an introduction to wood structure and wood products, I invariably attempt to encourage the students to see connections within the information presented. A central theme to my second year Wood Anatomy course is the form-function relationship of wood’s structure at all levels of magnification. Describing wood structure and how variations in such structure can affect wood properties is interesting (at least to a wood scientist); however, it is making the connections between form and function or the “how?” or “why?” questions that help students not only better understand the concepts being discussed but the importance of seeking deeper understanding of connections between concepts.
I always try to emphasize to students how much I care about their learning and my teaching. I demonstrate that care through my actions. I am never late for class, I am always prepared and I always have a lesson plan to work from. Brave words, perhaps, but they are true. I genuinely care passionately about my teaching and if that passion ever left me then I would seek alternative employment. I cannot imagine anything less soulful than just going through the motions in a classroom, waiting for the bell to ring!
Q. Do you have any advice for new faculty just starting out in teaching? Any tips or experiences you could share that helped you along the way?
SE: Seek advice from others, but don’t anticipate that they will have all of the answers – all good teachers are continually learning themselves. Don’t be afraid to try new things in your classroom and seek to build a level of rapport with your students such that you can gain genuine feedback from them. While they may not seem as sophisticated learners as some of the more experienced teachers from whom you may seek advice, they are in your classes every day and they are the ones often best situated to give you meaningful feedback on your teaching. Enjoy yourself. That might sound like it should be a given but I’m not sure if it is for everyone – do you really want to be doing something for the next 30-odd years that you do not enjoy? It is also very likely that if you are enjoying teaching more, your students will enjoy their learning more. At a very practical level – video yourself teaching and force yourself to watch the recording! I have done this and while I cannot say that I necessarily enjoyed the viewing, I did learn from the experience.
Q. Have you worked with CTLT on any teaching and learning projects or initiatives?
SE: I have had a lot of interaction with CTLT and its predecessor, TAG. Initially, I took the three-day Instructional Skills Workshop in 1995 under the guiding eye of the founding director of TAG, Dr. Gail Riddell. Gail then offered my department a lot of help as we started our new undergraduate Wood Products Processing program that year. In 1999-2000 I was in the second cohort of faculty members who completed the Faculty Certificate Program (FCP) in Teaching in Higher Education, with Dr. Harry Hubball. I’ve served as one of the exit interviewers for that program since then and currently sit on the FCP Scholarship of Teaching and Learning program’s advisory board. I’ve also served as a mentor for some members of the recent Beijing cohorts taking the SoTL program. I served on TAG’s Faculty-level Instructional Development Group during the mid-2000’s and I currently sit on the joint councils of the UBC Institute for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. Since 2001, I’ve run a workshop at TAG/CTLT covering the preparation of teaching portfolios for individuals who are going up for tenure or promotion. I’ve also attended numerous workshops at CTLT as part of the May Institute and at other times.
This article was published in the May 2013 CTLT Newsletter, Dialogues. Below is a list of the articles included in the issue:
- 2013 CTLT Institute
- Faculty Spotlight – 3M National Teaching Fellow Dr. Simon Ellis (currently viewing)
- What Does Flexible Learning Look Like?
Find out more information about the CTLT Newsletter, Dialogues.