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Alverno. Where teaching and learning really matter.

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by Judith Berger '98

Alverno is known throughout the world for its effective and innovative abilities-based curriculum, but even the best teaching model relies on talented instructors. The number one ranking of Alverno College by U.S. News & World Report for doing “the best job of educating undergrads,” puts the College in prestigious company with Princeton University and Dartmouth College. It’s a significant achievement, but one that wouldn’t be possible without the hard work, passion and dedication of the College’s faculty.

Alverno has 118 full-time instructors, of which 93 percent hold the highest degree in their field. While they are a highly talented, academically enriched group of educators, they are also firmly committed to the College’s mission of educating the next generation of female leaders. It is their commitment to effective, evolving pedagogy that makes Alverno a world-class higher educational institution.

Four Alverno educators took time out of the classroom to share and reflect on what it means to be on the faculty at Alverno College. And while they open up and share specifics about their own unique teaching philosophy, they also embody the sentiment of every instructor. For them, the U.S. News recognition is an honor, but they also see their commitment to teaching as a collaboration with intentional strategies and an unwavering belief in every students’ potential to learn.

ZOHREH EMAMI, School of Business

Zohreh Emami, professor of economics, brings an invaluable global perspective to her teaching. Emami was born and raised in Iran, where the purpose of education was to fill a mind–not to open one. “I left a society that was under a dictator’s rule, where independent thinking was discouraged,” she said. “Democracy is a practice. You must have the ability to think for yourself, which is why I was very interested in becoming an educator.”

Emami sent a letter inquiring about a faculty position at Alverno 23 years ago. “When I mailed the letter,

I told my husband, ‘this is where I will teach,’” she remembers. “After reading about Alverno, I knew this was the place I wanted to be.”

An amazing transformation

At Alverno, Emami knew teaching would be more than filling students’ heads with facts. “It is a place where students would take control of their learning. A place where students bring their ideas and what they know. This has value,” she said. “It’s not where you are when you come in; it’s what happens to you after you leave–your accomplishments, choices, the ability to scrutinize and think for yourself. We want students to live lives they have reason to value.”

In her classroom students listen, interact and collaborate. It is the conduit for debate and dialogue, she said. “We do not spoon-feed answers here. We teach the importance of engagement.”

Each student is different and brings something different to the classroom–their concerns, their background, their opinions and their preconceptions, Emami said. “You have to start where they are. If you don’t, you won’t be effective.”

The strategy of assessment is one that students use their entire lives, she said. “It’s reflection, taking stock, learning and moving on.”

Every day, Emami learns from her students and colleagues. It’s exactly the experience she envisioned when she mailed that letter 23 years ago. “The dignity of every person is respected here,” she said.

ROBIN GLEASON, School of Education

The lucky among us have pivotal moments; the wise ones recognize them and respond. For Robin Gleason, assistant professor in the School of Education, the moment came when a little boy was struggling to read. An elementary school teacher in the Wauwatosa School District at the time, Gleason could not accept this. “I believe all students can learn,” she said. That little boy put Gleason on a path dedicated to teaching children to read and write, and eventually to teach future teachers to effectively do the same.

Armed with best practices, students learn how to adapt

Gleason, who is in her fifth year at Alverno, teaches literacy, or more specifically, teaches students to teach reading and writing. “We all know the most important classroom element for students to learn to read and write is the teacher,” she said. “So we arm our students with best practices. Our students learn what to do, then go into the classroom to observe, practice and assess. The power of self-reflection is important.”

Teaching students to be keen observers and to analyze and then to make instructional decisions based on observation and analysis, Gleason said, is key because every child learns differently, at different rates, with different strategies. “Learning is developmental because students have individual learning styles. We address our students’ needs and support those learning styles, however students take responsibility for their learning.”

Through modeling–demonstrating effective teaching practices–meaningful and authentic assessments, valuable discussions and the eight abilities, the College creates the best conditions for learning and provides an environment where risk-taking can happen, she said. “We demonstrate what good teaching looks likes.”

Gerald Duffy, an educator who researched how teachers teach students to comprehend when reading, was another epiphany for Gleason. The skill of teaching students to grasp, understand and analyze what they were reading was unchartered waters, she said. “We continue to develop strategies to help children with reading comprehension.”

Ensuring the education of future generations

“I’m honored to be teaching here,” she said. “Educating our students is a collaborative effort. We help grow effective teachers.”

Every aspect of Alverno is focused on the education of the student, Gleason said. “In many instances, we are educating first-generation college students. This is a nurturing environment where students feel supported in their learning. Our students can make social change through effective teaching of reading and writing skills.” All of which makes a powerful legacy for generations of children taught by Alverno graduates.

PEG RAUSCHENBERGER, School of Nursing

“I saw the transformation in me. I saw the transformation in my daughters,” said Peg Rauschenberger, associate professor and associate dean of the School of Nursing. Rauschenberger has a 360-degree perspective. She was an Alverno student. She is a parent of Alverno graduates. She is an educator. “Alverno does something different,” she said. “It has taken me farther into my professional life.”

The move to an academic environment

Rauschenberger spent years as a practicing nurse in a broad spectrum of disciplines from cardiac care to juvenile incarceration. But after returning to graduate school, she realized that she loved the academic environment. “Teaching gives me the opportunity to form the profession for the future,” she said.

But it wasn’t until about four years into teaching at Alverno that she started to feel her impact as an educator. “I became more aware of my influence; I was not just imparting knowledge,” she shared. It was around that time Rauschenberger received a note from one of her students.

The student appeared to be at crisis point, Rauschenberger recalled. She questioned who she was, why she struggled and what she believed in. “Then a note came that said, ‘An angel put you in front of me this semester. You have given me the strength to ask those questions and to seek the answers.’”

A rich learning environment critical to any curriculum

The experience cemented that at Alverno, faculty and students have a partnership in learning. “When teaching, there is a balance between assisting and challenging students. There is a rigor to teaching the discipline of nursing, but there is also an intent to create an environment so that students can make the discipline their own.”

It is an environment that allows and even encourages the ability to have tough conversations, to make mistakes and to have new and different viewpoints.

The diverse student body strengthens the fabric of an Alverno education. “When you have a wide, diverse starting point, you have to be a good educator with effective teaching strategies,” she said. “We develop intentional learning experiences.”

“There is a humanness to teaching nursing that is very powerful,” she said of the honest interactions she has with students. “Undergraduate education is at the heart of Alverno College. We are innovators. We research how to continually do it better. We are committed to it.”

JODI EASTBERG, School of Arts & Sciences

“At Alverno, a student knows their experience will be about them,” said Jodi Eastberg, associate professor of history. “Every student has the ability to learn and should have the opportunity to learn. So we build in opportunities for every student and develop strategies to reach everyone in the class, making them specific enough to engage individuals.”

A teaching philosophy that reaches every student

Teaching a broad spectrum of subjects from Chinese history to U.S. Women’s Rights and Lives to both undergraduate and graduate-level students can be challenging. But Eastberg, in an effort to reach every student, strives to make learning tangible and relevant where students can make connections to their lives and the world around them. “My class is an active space.”

Eastberg is in her seventh year at the College. Before coming to Alverno, she taught at an all-girls high school in St. Louis. It was a great experience toward developing her teaching philosophy. Eastberg was born in Kansas and raised in Tucson by parents who were special education teachers.

“I have a very open idea of what’s possible and can perceive paths students can take to learning. It’s part of who I am,” she said. “Alverno reflects my values, which is why I was so excited about joining the faculty.”

As a feminist and a historian, Eastberg said she is conscious about creating opportunities and an environment where learning can take place. “It’s powerful to do that in your work every day. My classes are challenging and I expect a lot, but it’s learning that is collaborative not competitive.”

Collaboration that connects both students and faculty

Eastberg also recognizes that she is surrounded by peers who share her commitment to teaching. “Alverno hires faculty who care about teaching and listening to students. Our students are engaged in their own learning. It’s a collaboration of faculty–within and across disciplines–and students that makes everything work.”

The students benefit from the intentional practice of faculty coming together to talk about teaching in meaningful ways, Eastberg said. “The goal is to produce better outcomes for our students and to make us more effective educators.”

“Our commitment is evident in extensive feedback. This is a tool to diagnose work through constant conversations with students. It’s collaborative.” Feedback is a key element to Alverno’s mission, which is why, Eastberg said, it is important that class sizes remain small.”