Contact: Mark McGowan, NIU Office of Public Affairs
April 22, 2009
DeKalb, Ill. — Author and poet William Arthur Ward once said of teachers: “The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.”
Northern Illinois University has many great and inspirational teachers, and Mylan Engel, Lesley Rigg and Jeanette Rossetti stand tall among them. The three are this year’s recipients of the Awards for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching.
Engel, from the Department of Philosophy in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences; Rigg, from the Department of Geography in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences; and Rossetti, from the School of Nursing and Health Studies in the College of Health and Human Sciences, now enjoy the university’s longest-standing honor.
The recognition stands in a class of its own because the nominations and subsequent words of support originate with the young minds on the other side of the classroom.
“To have the students you teach support you for this award is an incredible honor. It says the students themselves value what you’re doing in the classroom,” Engel says. “I routinely have former students contact me to say, ‘Contemporary Moral Issues is the only college class I still think about.’ If you can teach a class and have the students still thinking about it 10 years later, you’ve accomplished what you were hoping to.”
Initiated in 1966, the awards honor excellent undergraduate teaching at the university, encourage improvement of instruction and promote discussion among members of the university community on the subject of teaching.
Nominees must be full-time faculty whose major responsibility is teaching and must have worked at least five full academic years at NIU. Engel, Rigg and Rossetti each receive a check for $2,000.
Joining them in honor is Ed Brata, an instructor in the Department of Marketing in the College of Business, who has received the university’s third Excellence in Undergraduate Instruction award.
“It means a lot to me. They’re saying, ‘You are doing a good job, and we appreciate it,’ ” Brata says. “I’m definitely humbled and proud. I must be doing something right.”
Here is a closer look at the four.
Credit Mylan Engel’s mother with incredible foresight – and equal patience.
Her young son spouted an endless stream of profound interrogations, most of which were far beyond why the sky is blue. He wanted to know if other children saw colors the same way he did and, oh, why more people weren’t Christians if faith in God meant eternal happiness.
“My whole life, I was intrigued by philosophical questions without even realizing they were philosophical questions,” Engel says. “She’d say, ‘You think too much.’ I was a 10-year-old kid.”
Yet when he went to Vanderbilt University for a double major in business and economics – Engel intended to become a lawyer at his father’s firm in hometown Mobile, Ala. – his mother encouraged him to take a philosophy course. It changed his life.
Among the topics on the first day: the inverted color spectrum. “The very thing I had puzzled over as a kid! I thought, ‘Other people think about these things!’ ” he says.
Engel fell in love with the discipline’s deep questions, which he calls “fundamental, intellectual puzzles,” of the nature of reality and our place in the universe.
He has philosophically examined the ethics of eating animals and concluded that not only is it immoral but that most humans would agree if they fully analyzed their own beliefs. He’s also concluded there are no valid reasons to believe in God.
“I really have a passion for the subject,” he says. “The ancient Greeks were right. Philosophy holds the key to the good life. I want that for my students: to think philosophically, to question, to become an independent thinker, to grow immensely.”
Teaching came naturally. A former competitive gymnast, Engel had coached the sport to children from age 3 through high school.
In his classes, Engel challenges students to think in a “radically reflective way” that requires them to open their minds and become “dispassionate” about the topics as they search for the truth. They must set aside emotional attachments. They must respect each other.
During the process, they discover their personal values and beliefs. Sometimes, he says, those conclusions are troubling. And, he adds, if you realize you’ve been mistaken once already, chances are good there are other mistakes in your thinking.
“I often set things up as a puzzle, and they start to see, ‘Oh, there’s some inconsistency in my beliefs,’ ” he says. “They don’t like that. They thought they had it all worked out.”
“Though Professor Engel’s classes have proven to be some of the most challenging that I’ve taken, each class also proved to harbor what I believe to be some of my greatest intellectual growth,” said a former student. “His expectations of his students are high, but it is clear that his personal teaching expectations are as well.”
“Professor Engel has a remarkable ability to explain complex philosophical notions with great clarity and articulation,” student Kearney Grambauer adds.
All college students can benefit from courses in philosophy, Engel says. They’ve left home, eager to carve out unique personalities and to profess individuality, maybe dyeing their hair green or purple, “yet they believe almost everything they’ve been taught.”
Study of philosophy also promotes responsible parenting, he says. Parents who explore their fundamental values can then teach ethics and values to their children without having to “pawn” that duty off to someone else or simply “passing down” what their own parents imparted.
“It’s our thoughts that define us, not the color of our hair,” he says. “My goal is to force you to think for yourself and to free you from the shackles of your upbringing.”
Ebert and Roeper might enjoy auditing Lesley Rigg’s geography classes.
Rigg requires students to critique movies, not for their entertainment value but from a physical geography perspective. Take “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” for example: Viewers glimpse Australia. Or Rigg’s favorite, “Lawrence of Arabia,” which features desert footage filmed in Jordan and Morocco.
“Maybe it will make them curious. Maybe they’ll go there 10 years down the road,” Rigg says. “But I’ve had students say, ‘You’ve ruined movies for me!’ ”
She’s also spoiled spring break and family vacations for others. Some students who intended to recline on hot beaches with adult beverages in hand instead found themselves running along dunes to examine coastal processes.
Rigg’s own love of geography began as a young girl in Toronto, Canada, where she earned a private pilot’s license and a glider license.
“I did a lot of flying as a kid, so I had a lot of appreciation for the landscape,” the DeKalb resident says. “Geography came naturally. It was one science where I could see where all the pieces come together.”
During a one-year break as she earned her bachelor’s degree at York University in Canada, she worked as an international flight attendant. “I saw the world from 36,000 feet,” Rigg says. “Then I came back to university (and eventually in pursuit of a master’s in Colorado and a doctorate in Australia) and never left.”
Geography offers a study of “everything that happens on the earth’s surface – climate, soils, plants, humans, hydrology – through space and time. It’s not just where, but why things are there.”
Two-thirds of Rigg’s students, many of whom are non-majors, find that geography is not what they expected. Many change their majors after introductory classes capture their enthusiasm.
She involves students in her current research on the impact of climate change and pollution on sugar maples at their northern limit in North America. She and her team will return this summer to Lake Superior Provincial Park in Canada, where they are simulating projected future temperatures and precipitation patterns on sugar maple seedlings growing there.
“Science isn’t horrible. Science isn’t scary. Science isn’t difficult, mostly,” says Rigg, winner of the 2009 Wilma D. Stricklin Award for enhancing the climate on campus for women. “Teachers just have to make it approachable. You have to make students comfortable first. I say something funny. I do something silly. Students learn when they’re having fun. It’s not that it has to be fun, but fun means they’re learning more.”
Rigg’s teaching load includes sections of Geography 101 that pack as many as 400 students into the auditorium. A good teacher can reach those few hundred as if they’re a few dozen, she says.
“Dr. Rigg is animated and direct in her teaching, but offers the opportunity to discuss and debate in a comfortable and welcome environment,” student Jennifer Outcalt says. “Dr. Rigg spends time with every student, working with their level, and expects you to work hard. She gives as much as you are willing to give her.”
“You have to be yourself. You only can be yourself. The biggest thing is that you can only know what you know and you can only teach what you know. I’m not afraid to say, ‘I don’t know.’ I’ll say, ‘That’s a good question. I’ll find out,’ ” Rigg says. “You’ll see students move toward the front. Attendance increases. Students almost become protective of that classroom environment and protective of that friendly atmosphere we have.”
Rigg and her husband, David Goldblum, an assistant professor in the Department of Geography, are parents to 8-year-old Rachel and 5-year-old Aaron.
No one would blame Jeanette Rossetti if she chose to avoid hospitals for the rest of her life.
As a young girl, she watched her father battle maladies that included stroke and heart attack and that eventually claimed his life when Rossetti was only 13. Yet as doctor’s offices, hospitals and even the Mayo Clinic became familiar surroundings, she somehow saw a bright side.
“I was exposed to that whole health care environment, and it got me hooked,” Rossetti says. “I really saw the importance of how a nurse could teach or motivate a patient. I thought, ‘Wow, that’s really an important job.’ ”
The Joliet native earned a degree in nursing from Lewis University but felt unexpected doubts during her first clinical rotation in medical surgical nursing.
Her second clinical, in the psychiatric ward, reignited her passion for nursing and launched her career as a psychiatric mental health nurse.
“I was fascinated by what the mind could do or not do, and my teacher was so supportive. She said, ‘You are really good at communicating,’ ” she says. “We care for patients who have mental illness – depression, bipolar, anxiety schizophrenia – and our job is to keep the patients safe, to monitor their meds, talk to them, preserve their self-esteem, and to do so in a compassionate manner.”
Rossetti started at Riveredge Hospital, a 200-bed psychiatric facility in Forest Park. The work was hard and often challenging: Some patients were homicidal; others suicidal. Nonetheless, she loved her work there and, in 1996, earned a master’s degree focused on psychiatric nursing.
Her 13 years at Riveredge also provided a first dose of teaching when nursing students arrived for clinicals.
“I was always the nurse who said, ‘Cool! The students are here.’ I’d say, ‘Come with me. Stay with me. Spend the day with me,’ ” she says. “The students were great to work with, and I always thought that somewhere down the line I would teach.”
That opportunity came in 1997 at Rockford’s Saint Anthony College of Nursing, where she was an instructor for three years.
Rossetti “fell in love” with teaching, pursued a doctoral degree in adult education at NIU and discovered her second life’s calling. She joined the faculty in the College of Health and Human Sciences in 2000.
In 2005, she spearheaded a commitment from Linden Oaks Hospital at Edward in Naperville to become a summer intership site for psychiatric nursing students. In 2007, she won the college’s Lankford Award for Teaching Excellence.
Rossetti’s classes, which enroll many students who never will pursue mental health work as psychiatric nurses, are brought to life with her tales from the field. “I tell lots of stories. They can read the book, but I try to bring it to life,” she says.
Many of the skills necessary for psychiatric nursing mirror those required for all nurses.
“My goal is that my students care for all patients, and take care of all their needs, no matter what kind of nursing they pursue,” Rossetti says. “Patients with mental illness need care and compassion, and nurses must be their advocates. Supporting patients’ rights is a passion of mine.”
“Dr. Rossetti did a brilliant job of honoring her relationships with patients by providing holistic nursing care, complying with hospital and state protocol, implementing evidence-based practice,” former student Dominique Kempf says, “and serving as a wonderful example to her students.”
Rossetti lives in St. Charles with her husband, Dave, who works in the transportation industry. Their daughter, Kristyn, 21, is a pre-law and paralegal studies major at Southern Illinois University.
Sometimes Ed Brata can’t believe where he is.
As a construction worker three-and-a-half decades ago, he helped to build Founders Memorial Library, the steam tunnels and other fixtures of the Normal Road infrastructure. Now he’s a well-respected instructor of sales management and principles of sales in Barsema Hall, the modern and sleek home of the NIU College of Business.
Between his final days as a laborer and his first one-year contract in 1992 at NIU stood a tremendously successful 15-year career in real estate. The rich stories of his real world experience make his classroom crackle with excitement over learning.
“I encourage students to think beyond the textbook and learn from each other and through my own real-world experiences,” Brata says. “I care that each student succeeds beyond getting good grades. It is my desire that their success is based on the tools, skills and knowledge that I provide them in the classroom.”
His first years as a teacher were not easy ones, he says. He holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees, both from NIU, but they’re in geography. He came to the front of the classroom with no teaching experience – “Nil,” he says – and found himself trying to tackle an “overwhelming” four classes and three prep sessions.
Fortunately, he says, two of his NIU colleagues noticed his struggles. Professors Geoffrey Gordon and Rick Ridnour took Brata under their wings, offering help by loaning everything from lecture notes and exams to instruction on how to fill out grade books.
Soon he received invaluable advice from Janet Giesen, of NIU’s Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center, who told him to “get out of the textbook.”
“It took me one or two semesters before I fully realized that students were looking for more than what is between the creases of a textbook,” Brata says.
A career was launched.
“I’ve had jobs. I don’t deem this as a job. I enter the classroom with a sense of energy,” the Sycamore resident says. “It’s the students’ willingness to learn that keeps me coming back. They want to learn. I only act as a facilitator. I’m still learning to learn myself.”
“Ed has a heart the size of a watermelon and truly cares for each and every one of his students,” former student Mary Jo Orbegoso says. “Ed wants to see us succeed, and he will do whatever it takes to get us there. He is an outstanding teacher, mentor and role model.”
Brata calls the students his “120 movers and shakers.” They stay in touch long after graduation with phone calls and e-mails, he says. He’s been invited to their weddings and the baptisms of their children.
He creates a classroom environment that is “firm, friendly and honest” as well as “caring and respectful where students feel welcome and motivated and to learn.” Questions are encouraged. They must expect challenges. They must challenge Brata. Grades are earned, not given.
Lessons of integrity and ethics are as important as principles of sales and sales management.
Of course, there is plenty to teach about marketing. Minimize your regrets. Optimize your opportunities. Know things: Know yourself. Know your company. Your competition. Your customers. Your manager.
For his part, Brata knows his students – and has found a level of comfort as a teacher that he never knew as a Realtor.
“I’m engrossed in the students. They are just incredible. I’m honored to be able to touch their lives somehow,” he says. “You’ve got to live in the present. You can’t live in the past. You’ve got to give today the best you can. My passion now is in the classroom.”
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