What Teaching at Saint Louis University has Taught Me

Reinert Center RIT_circle_2014_solid_082214by Lenin Grajo, Assistant Professor, Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy

The reflections shared in this post were edited from the reflection I gave during the recently concluded Spring Certificate Ceremony of the Reinert Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning.  At the end of this month, I will conclude four amazing years teaching in the Department of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy. I wanted to capture and share some of the valuable lessons I have learned as an educator at SLU.

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 “Dear Dr. Grajo…… You have a gift for teaching and keeping your students both engaged and challenged.  Your classes taught me so much about occupational therapy.  And if I ever go to academia, I hope to be at least half of the professor that you are to your students….  Thank you and enjoy New York City.”

After teaching my very last class at Saint Louis University this past Monday, I tried very hard to keep my composure and emotions when I said my last words of wisdom to my students. I received this hand-made card and note on my way back to my office.  After reading this message, I finally gave in and cried.  I love being an educator.  I love the big and small ways that we are able to impact and influence the knowledge, beliefs and attitudes of our students.  I love how we are able to transform them to a different, hopefully better, version of their selves.  In my field and profession, I particularly love how we are able to shape future occupational therapists that will someday change the lives of countless patients who typically seek our services during a challenging period of change, transition and many times despair.

Today, I have been asked to share a few reflections and thoughts about my journey to teaching and offer some tips to all of you, new and seasoned educators, who are here today because you all want to be transformative educators.  I hope I can give this honorable task some justice.

I wasn’t a typical child growing up.  When I was five, when most of my playmates’ symbolic play often involved being a doctor, housekeeper, policeman or firefighter, I already knew I wanted to become a teacher.  In a quiet corner with a blank wall divider at our consanguineal home in the Philippines, I would gather up three to five of my cousins and neighbors, scribble on the wall using small pieces of chalk that my father would buy for me, and I would teach them lessons from the children’s bible.  That afternoon, while they all imagined being naughty and silly students, I was seriously envisioning myself being in a huge classroom and being a great teacher.  If I did not become a pediatric occupational therapist and educator, I would have been a first grade teacher.

There are many ways to become a great educator, an effective educator, a transformative educator.  I want to share with you some thoughts and ways that I have learned and valued as an educator here at SLU.

1.  Consider that every teaching and learning moment counts.  Like everyone else, we educators have our bad days too. Despite these bad days, please do not forget that every opportunity to teach and learn with your students count.  I always think of my every teaching moment as my first and my last Broadway performance.  I have to deliver.  I have to elicit great responses.  I need to make it a moment that my students will think as a good and inspiring class.  It doesn’t matter what you teach, you have to make it count, always.

2.  Trust begets trust.  If you want your students to trust you, you have to trust them in return.  They maybe the naïve freshman, or the know-it-all doctoral student, or the whiny and “I need some help, actually a lot of help” master’s student, you need to cultivate a climate of trust in your classroom so students also trust you.  You have to trust that your students want to do good, that they are not just in it for the easy A, and that the paper they submitted is work that is original and a product of real hard work.  It is not easy, especially during a time when access to information is just one click, one app, one copy and paste away.  But trust me, you have to trust your students.

3. Listen and give your students undivided attention.  We all have the tendency to spread ourselves thinly and overcommit:  an extra meeting, appointment to a new committee, tons of research data waiting to be analyzed and written, grants to be submitted, and long pages of student reports that need to be graded.  However, one of the greatest joys I have as an educator is when I know, that even for 5, 10 or 15 minutes, I listened to a student, understood his/her struggles, and offered how I may be of assistance.  Those small nuggets of time, even if they take so much of your finite energy and resources, are valuable nuggets of time. Our students may or may not express how they appreciate it all the time, but I know my time is something they always find valuable.  So even when it’s the craziest time of the semester, please give them some time.

4.  Do not feel complacent and get stuck in old, usual, tested ways of doing.  These days our students are evolving faster than we could ever imagine.  Student attention spans are getting shorter and their study methods are becoming more interesting and unconventional.  Commit yourselves to constant re-assessment and reinvigoration of your teaching methods.  Try a new technology.  Try new and interesting methods of delivering material.  Try a new testing method.  Try a new way of getting your students interested.  Try a new collaboration with a co-faculty, department, program or university.  Try something new, and try it often.

5.  Lastly, express to your students how you care. Students who know that you genuinely care about how they think, what they think, how you want them to learn and grasp material, and how they will use this material are students who can and will make a difference after your class has ended.  Just like many professions, teaching is an art and science.  With the emergence of evidence-based practices, many ways of looking at teaching have evolved more into the science of teaching – the what to do and how to measure- and less about the art of teaching.  Translate knowledge to practical applications, help students bridge concepts to the real world, and allow students to ask questions, regardless of how silly those questions may seem to be.  Share a story, ask your students to share a story, and add humor.  Please, add humor. Give your teaching style your own personal flair and do not be afraid to be creative.

The Reinert Center is such a great resource and I am so happy to have utilized and have collaborated with the Reinert Center during my days here at SLU.  I have evolved into a better educator because of all the rich experiences and resources available here.  I hope that you will continue with your journey towards becoming truly effective and transformative educators.  Thank you for this opportunity to share some reflections, congratulations and I wish all of you good luck and happy teaching!

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