Ds Scholarship

NIU Today | Four honored for excellence in undergraduate teaching, instruction

Outstanding teachers nurture the love of learning in their students, who in turn are aware of their growth and grateful for the experience and knowledge gained.

It’s from those students that NIU’s annual awards for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching and Excellence in Undergraduate Instruction come.

Undergraduates drive the nominating process; student advisory committees in each college nominate faculty members by assembling comments and letters of recommendation from their fellow Huskies as well as other evidence of effective teaching.

Recipients for 2022 are Stephanie DeSpain, Keith Millis, Artemus Ward and Stephanie Uhr.

Each has demonstrated the ability:

  • To inspire students’ interest in and appreciation of their academic field.
  • To respond flexibly to students’ learning needs through a variety of instructional strategies.
  • To address students’ needs beyond the classroom with commitment to their well-being,
  • To demonstrate a pattern of sustained teaching excellence, maintain current knowledge of their subject area and its pedagogical practices.
  • To work actively within their program area to improve undergraduate education at an institutional level.

The four will join other NIU honorees from 3 to 5 pm Thursday, April 21, in the Altgeld Hall Auditorium for the Faculty Awards Celebration. The program begins at 3:30 pm No RSVP is needed; email ewright1@niu.edu for more information.

Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching

Stephanie DeSpain, Department of Special and Early Education

Content. Care. Compassion. Communication.

To students in Stephanie DeSpain’s Early Childhood Education classrooms, the message is clear: They and their learning come first, and their professor makes sure they know that.

Karli Waldrep, a Physical Education major, found that “Dr. DeSpain taught the material in a way that any major could apply to their own situation.”

“From Day One she showed that we mattered as students and that, in any situation, we could come to her with questions or for help,” Waldrep says. “She allowed the students to engage in the material – in their own way – that still allowed for a full understanding of the content.”

Early Childhood Education major Elizabeth Luczywek calls DeSpain “a role model and a person who cared for me as a student.”

She credits DeSpain for providing her the confidence to become “a unique and sensitive future teacher” through the professor’s frequent classroom anecdotes from her professional and personal lives.

“This very unique way of teaching encouraged me to share my own experiences, my mind on other methods and made me aware of their outcomes,” Luczywek says. “Everything that she taught me about what a teacher should be she also put into action by applying it to her own behavior: being responsive, respectful, open-minded, organized, culturally aware, sensitive, understanding and professional.”

Fellow Early Childhood major Teddi Clark agrees.

“My want to be a teacher has grown throughout the years because of Dr. DeSpain, and I know that I have gained the important skills to teach the young minds of tomorrow because of her,” Clark says.

“I have always been impressed by the knowledge Dr. DeSpain emanates when it comes to learning about children with disabilities, along with their families,” she adds. “(She) has instilled in me the importance of diversity and inclusion in my future classroom, and exemplified how much this means to her as a teacher.”

DeSpain, who in 2021 was among NIU’s inaugural winners of the Excellence in Online Teaching Award, also earns widespread applause for her communication. That takes the form of emails of assignments and expectations, followed by reminders and even “positive messages of encouragement.”

“My favorite emails from Dr. DeSpain would be about how much she was enjoying the weather and how she hoped we were having a good day,” Clark says. “It is small details like this that showed me she cared inside and outside of class time.”

Keith Millis, Department of Psychology

Most professors teach the students enrolled in their classes to advance their learning.

Keith Millis, professor in the Department of Psychology, goes beyond – on both counts.

Just ask Lynn Kang, who took Millis’ PSYC 305: Research Methods class in 2019.

Dr. Millis was a motivating and generous instructor who made a fast-paced summer course interesting and engaging,” Kang says.

“His video lectures were also engaging. I remember sometimes coming online after an exhausting day, and listening to his lectures would relax me,” she adds. Dr. Millis makes his videos enjoyable but informative. Not only did I feel like I gained knowledge; I also was enthralled by the subject being taught.”

Or ask Delaney Kissel, an undergraduate Pscyhology major.

“During the time that classes were online for the Spring 2021 semester, Dr. Millis had an uplifting spirit,” Kissel says. “He efficacy explained material while adding humor to the lectures. Even my roommates, who were not in his class, enjoyed listening in and found the class interesting.”

Graduates of Millis’ courses call him a “brilliant, encouraging and dedicated” professor with “a deeper respect for students” who is “born to teach psych” and “makes me excited about learning.”

Other adjectives include amazing, passionate, creative, funny, knowledgeable, friendly, energetic and kind, all of which are evident in a project that requires students to evaluate research found online, insert flaws into their summaries and then challenge classmates to find those flaws.

“This is an ingenious way to help students take a step beyond where they are in critical thinking,” one alum says. “His syllabi are filled with creative assignments that help students create meaningful products that also have real-world applications.”

For Kissel, Millis’ willingness “to go out of his way to help students” demonstrate his dedication.

“When I participated in an independent study with Dr.. Millis, I was always certain that if I did not understand what was happening in the class, he would be more than happy to help me discover what the roadblock was to my comprehension,” Kissel says.

“Along with this, Dr. Millis was willing to understand me on a more personal level by discovering my interests and hobbies and tying them into the work being done in the study,” she adds. “Through this, I was able to know that he sincerely valued my success and desire to grow in the field, as well as to maintain interest with it along the way.”

Artemus Ward, Department of Political Science

Hollywood versions of teachers on the silver screen often seem utopian.

Artemus Ward, professor in the Department of Political Science, has achieved that status in the eyes of his students.

“I never expected to meet a professor that would forever change my life. I always believed that those things only happen in movies, like in the film, ‘Good Will Hunting,’ ” says Michaelangelo Herrera, who took two courses from Ward.

“Looking back now, it wasn’t just the academics; it was everything about him that astonished me. I learned that Professor Ward is much more than any instructor,” Herrera adds, mentioning Ward’s education, accomplishments, media interviews and outside interests. “Just like a composer, his curricula were his masterpieces.”

Herrera appreciated how Ward “fashioned questions so well that it made all of his students really ponder different ideals, various perspectives – and themselves. He challenged students to use their minds, valued their input and made everyone feel included.”

Known as a “captivating” professor whose “enthusiasm for teaching others is unparalleled,” Ward teaches courses that are not only interesting and entreating but also “the hardest” that some of his students face while at NIU.

Fall 2021 graduate Aidan Simmons says Ward possesses “a gift” in creating “an environment where students want to ask question, knowing they will get a detailed answer, and to deliver information in a compelling and engaging way.”

“It is an even greater gift to do so while motivating students to learn outside of the classroom as well,” Simmons says, “to the point where learning becomes less of a chore and more of a pastime.”

Ward merges the Socratic teaching methods of law classes with lectures, allowing “students to still be comfortable in learning material by listening” while also giving many “the extra push to come out of their shell and participate.”

His questions often exceed the cases listed in the syllabus to encompass “the social, political and economic issues that surround them,” Simmons says, a tactic that forces students to “put the pieces of the puzzle together to see the bigger picture.”

For Simmons, that showed “the pinnacle” of “what every teacher should move toward.”

“I would find myself researching every detail of the cases before class for hours, going down rabbit-holes of information, even if it was only tangentially related to material we were required to learn, just for more context,” he says, “and loving every minute of it.”

Excellence in Undergraduate Instruction

Stephanie Uhr, School of Nursing

Students in Stephanie Uhr’s courses in the School of Nursing call her by her first name – and at her request.

The instructor with two NIU Nursing degrees has taught pre-licensure courses here since 2014 while also continuing to work at Northwestern Medicine Huntley Hospital as a lead lactation consultant in the Breastfeeding Resource Center.

Joshua Copher, who is a student his first year as a nursing, says Uhr has “all the great qualities” necessary for effective teaching and an ability to adapt.

“For one, Stephanie can put herself on our level, recognizing that just because we are students does not mean that we lack valid ideas and knowledge. She is just as willing to learn from us as we are from her,” Copher says.

“One of the best things she ever told us was, ‘I am not an expert in anything.’ She described how having all those letters behind her name didn’t make her an expert,” he adds, “but rather a more-experienced person with that much more knowledge to share with us.”

That exists outside the classroom as well, he says.

“Stephanie was always there to listen to us,” Copher says. “Whether it was to implement change or just get a little off our chests, Stephanie was there with an open door and a listening ear. One thing you can bet on is if Stephanie’s door is open, you are welcome.”

Uhr’s students describe her as an “ambitious, amazing and supportive” instructor with “a genuine personality” who “makes her class interesting and presents concepts in a way that makes the content easy to grasp.”

She’s also known as a “truly a bright spot in a very difficult and grueling semester” as well as a passionate mentor always willing to make time and offer great advice when asked.

In her classroom, Uhrs “inclusion and kindness,” something she models herself through “her ability to teach so many different students, at different levels of learning, at once.”

Maegan Gross considers her time in Uhr’s professional nursing and childbearing nursing courses as a “privilege.”

“She always created a positive learning environment while also constantly assessing and adapting to our needs as students,” Gross says. “Her teaching style was very enlightening, humorous, educational and very clear and easy to follow. She always let us know her expectations of us as her students and helped us achieve those expectations by being a great teacher.”

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