The University of Alabama

Classroom Conversation: Passion, Compassion, and Putting the Student First

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Dr. Elizabeth “Liza” Wilson is senior associate dean and professor in the
College of Education. Her areas of specialty are social studies teaching and learning, technology integration, and teachers’ beliefs and practices. She is
a 2012 recipient of the UA National Alumni Association’s Outstanding
Commitment to Teaching Award.

 

By Cathy Butler

When Liza Wilson started her career, she wanted to be the best teacher with the best lesson plans and the best classroom. Almost three decades later, her passion for teaching has not dimmed, but her philosophy of what makes the best teacher has changed.

“To be a good teacher it’s not enough to have passion for teaching the content,” she said during an interview in her Carmichael Hall office. “It’s necessary to have compassion for the students.”

That change in philosophy came about partly as she matured as a teacher, and also in large measure through partnership efforts that took her into communities. She saw how understanding a student’s community outside the classroom is crucial to understanding a student’s needs inside the classroom. The more a teacher understands a student’s needs, concerns and challenges, the more the teacher can empathize and know how to help.

She practices what she preaches. Though now an associate dean, Wilson, who has been a faculty member at UA since 1991, continues to teach classes, mentor student teachers and graduate students, and advise students. She models the pedagogical methods she wants them to use in their own classrooms some day. She loves visiting their classrooms and the communities where they student teach. She encourages them to serve in their communities and develop service learning projects for their students.

“If I’m not in my students’ classrooms and communities, I can’t understand what they are facing. I can’t teach my students how to respond to their students if I don’t know how to respond to them.”

Responding to her students means getting to know them when they are in her class, too. A simple “How’s it going?” followed by taking the time to really listen may reveal that a student is sick, or has fallen behind in class, or is worried about money troubles back home.

“Whatever the situation, take time to connect with the student,” Wilson advised. “If you notice they seem to have changed, reach out to them. Sometimes they feel alone and it means so much just to know someone cares.”

While students have always struggled with things like homesickness and time management, today’s students are different from those of just a few years ago, Wilson said. “They come from an instant society and they have high expectations, not only for themselves but for us. While we have always had students of high caliber in our classes, today’s students are more likely to expect quick responses and results. They challenge us to continue to give our best. That’s good, because our best then challenges them.”

Challenging students academically means knowing the content and providing it in ways that meets the students’ needs: using the best technology, providing rich research opportunities, and showing students how to go beyond a simple Internet search to dig for the best information.

One of her areas of specialty is technology integration. Yet she readily admits that with the breakneck pace of change, preparing a student for the classroom technology of two decades from now, or even two years from now, really isn’t feasible. But, equipping students with the principles, processes and philosophy to be good teachers can be done. Students can be taught how to determine what information is worth using and what should be discarded, no matter what technology they use to gather that information. They can be shown how their research can inform their practice, which in turn benefits their students.

Those foundations equip a student to be a capable teacher. Learning to make students a priority enables a student to become an outstanding teacher.

“Our students want to know we care. Their students will want to know that they care, both about the content and about them as people. People who love to teach have the capability to do that,” she said.

For Wilson, part of that caring comes out in her dedication to staying in the classroom. “The challenge is in balancing teaching, research and administrative duties. In all those things, students are the priority. They come first.”