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Contact: Mark McGowan, NIU Office of Public Affairs
April 4, 2006
DeKalb — Everyone remembers a favorite teacher.
Some are the college professors who uncover hidden talents, who expose career paths, who challenge common notions and who nurture each fertile apprentice. They are the ones who believe their greatest impact is made not in the field but in preparing others for those tasks.
They push students beyond their comfort zones but leave their doors open when counsel is needed or victories are breathlessly explained. They keep toes firmly dipped in their pools of knowledge but leave their minds open for new ideas brought by those under their guidance.
Northern Illinois University is home to many favorite teachers, including the 2006 class of Presidential Teaching Professors: John Hartmann, of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences; Richard Orem, of the College of Education; and David Taylor, of the College of Law.
Begun in 1990, Presidential Teaching Professorships recognize outstanding teachers among the faculty. Each receives a $2,000 boost in base salary as well as a grant of $5,000 per year for their four-year appointment to help improve their teaching. After four years, they become Distinguished Teaching Professors.
“One thing I've always said about this is there is not a better recognition for a faculty member than to be nominated by your peers and your students. This certainly is a program that will allow us to shine a light on our best and brightest teachers,” says Vice Provost Earl “Gip” Seaver. “People will argue, but teaching is the most important thing we do here at this institution.”
The avenues of academic adventure are limitless for teachers at NIU, Orem says.
“When I hear people complain about their work, especially those who are counting the days to retirement, I say to myself, ‘Every day is a new day to me.' That's what energizes me,” Orem says. “Being a professor in an institution like Northern Illinois University, you're given great independence, and with that comes great responsibility to take advantage of all the opportunities that this university gives you, and to work with students who are changing the world. I wouldn't want to do anything else.”
Here is a closer look at this year's three.
If John Hartmann wrote his autobiography, he would foreshadow many of his adult life decisions through an undergraduate class in rhetoric at the University of Michigan .
Hartmann's professor often invited students to her home “to have something to eat, to talk, to get to know her” as she told stories of her missionary work in an Alaskan Eskimo village.
“At the end of the semester, she turned to the class and said, ‘You know, you're only half-educated.' That kind of startled me. I'd paid good money to get a complete education,” Hartmann says. “She went on to say, ‘You've been educated in Western traditions and Western thought. There's another half to the universe, the world, called the Orient, the East.' I started to think about that.”
More than 40 years later, the Orient and a highly personal approach to teaching remain Hartmann's passions.
The professor in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures since 1974 drew a map in his mind to Thailand, and after three months of intensive language training in the Peace Corps, he was there. Hartmann worked two years at a teacher's college and then at the Ministry of Education, where he developed tools for teaching English.
He soon returned home to Michigan, where his family owns the world's largest blueberry plant propagating business, to begin graduate school.
“I believe teaching has a civilizing effect on students and on society as a whole. Here at Northern we have unique opportunities to take young people and help shape their lives to become civic-minded and help contribute to the commonweal, the betterment of society,” Hartmann says.
“You really can make a difference in one person's life,” he adds, recalling a former student who credits Hartmann for his NIU degree. “He said, ‘I am back in the ghetto where I grew up, and now I am teaching and counseling young people like myself to get an education, thanks to the help you gave me.' You take one student like that who you help succeed, and it just multiplies many times over.”
Hartmann's class materials are exclusively on the Web at www.seasite.niu.edu – there is no textbook, permitting a “natural conversation” – and his students collectively construct Friday exams of oral and language. They gather in a semi-circle for question-and-answer sessions in Thai, a tonal language with a non-Roman alphabet.
Students maintain weekly e-mail journals of their accomplishments and concerns. In return, Hartmann sends constant feedback and reinforcement.
And, he says proudly, classes become families after two semesters of daily meetings.
“He never made you feel stupid, and this is important in language learning,” NIU alumna Carrie Dayley says. “He was always encouraging. He never made students feel inferior. In spite of their differences, he seemed to communicate to students that all had potentially equal abilities.”
The NIU Southeast Asian Language and Cultures Web site, the most comprehensive in the world, helps people across the globe to teach and learn Thai, Tagalog, Indonesian, Khmer and Burmese. The Luce Foundation has sponsored some of his research into the Thai language spoken in China as well as Center for Southeast Asian Studies projects.
“It's a unique challenge to get someone to speak in another tongue. It almost requires a personality change. You have to adapt to the world outlook, the gestures, the body language, the attitudes of another culture,” Hartmann says. “I've had grown men cry in my class because they just couldn't get something to come out of their mouths. I always make them feel good about what they're doing. I make them feel like they're my family.”
Richard Orem finds daily confirmation of his work's value through the media.
“I'm working with English language learners and with teachers who are working with English language learners, and the teachers are dealing with issues of immigration,” says Orem, who joined NIU in 1978 and teaches in Literacy Education and Counseling, Adult and Higher Education.
“All you have to do is look at the news and look at all the demonstrations out there right now. This is probably the issue of the decade right now – what we are going to with immigration – and here I am, I'm working with students who are on the front lines working with children and adults who are changing the face of this country.”
Orem 's career began with a dream to join the Foreign Service.
With a bachelor's degree from Oberlin College, he embarked on a Peace Corps program to prepare elementary English as a foreign language teachers in Libya. After eight weeks of training in Utah with 50 young Libyan men, as he and 100 others prepared to leave for a Navajo reservation to practice, Moammar Khadafi's coup in Libya effectively ended the program.
Undaunted, he spent a year teaching in the inner-city schools of Atlanta and two years of teaching English in Tunisia. The exhilarated Orem then finished a master's degree in language education and soon pursued a doctorate after realizing his love of teaching adults.
“I've never thought of myself as being special,” he says. “What makes me a good faculty member, a good instructor, an effective instructor, is that I listen to my students. I try to respond. I try to meet them where they are. I try to demand a lot from them. I expect a great deal from my students and, with those expectations, I have been greatly satisfied with their productivity.”
He recalls fondly an Oberlin professor of American history who “could mesmerize a class with his stories of the local community,” and a graduate school professor who sent students into the field to meet practitioners of adult education.
Orem's trio traveled to eastern Tennessee, just outside Knoxville, where they met Myles Horton, founder of the Highlander Folk School.
“If people realized how that institution played a role in the civil rights movement and in the labor movement in this country, they'd be astounded, and it was all due to the workings of this man,” Orem says. “I had a chance over that weekend to sit down and share breakfast with him and listen to his stories. It was a very intimate moment, and one I'll never forget. In turn, one of the things that I do is get students out of the classroom and into the community.”
The Presidential Teaching Professorship “is the highlight of my teaching career here.”
“When Gip Seaver called me to tell me this, I couldn't believe it,” Orem says. “I've been on a high ever since then, and I don't know that I'll ever come down, because it gives me affirmation that, yeah, people have noticed what I've done.”
Denise Hatcher, a 2003 graduate, noticed.
“I have found him to be consistent and fair, demanding and understanding, professional yet kind, and always patient,” Hatcher says. “I find Dr. Orem to be the committed and esteemed educator that I and many others aspire to be.”
Justice for All
David Taylor earned a law degree at Washington University, becoming a legal aid attorney dedicated to representing indigent people in civil matters.
“I had a couple of great mentors who largely taught me everything I know about practicing law. They really showed me how the law could be used as a tool of achieving social justice,” Taylor says. “I try to do the same for my students. I show them how the law can be used as a tool to achieve justice and equality in our country, and I try to instill in them a spirit of ‘if you work hard and do right, justice actually can prevail.' ”
His involvement with NIU began in his Prairie State Legal Services office, where he often welcomed NIU College of Law students for externships. He joined the faculty in 1992.
He teaches Civil Procedure, Evidence, Lawyering Skills and Trial Advocacy, for which he developed original materials, and also serves as the College of Law 's director of skills training.
Taylor's philosophy: The practical informs the theoretical, and the theoretical explains the practical.
“I try to approach teaching with two things in mind. As a professional school, law involves students learning the methodology of the practice of law, trying to analyze a problem and coming to a solution. At the same time, it's also teaching them how to actually be a practitioner. I try to work both of those things into every course I teach,” Taylor says.
“It's a privilege to have this job,” he adds. “It's a wonderful experience to be able to work with students over three years and watch them really refine their thought process and become lawyers. I love teaching, and I've tried to have an impact on my students.”
Taylor also trains and coaches extramural teams in counseling, negotiation and trial practice sponsored by the American Bar Association, and spends time working with students at NIU's Zeke Giorgi Legal Clinic in Rockford.
“The clinic gets to tie together every aspect of their legal education. They take the substantive knowledge from the methods courses they've had, and they take practice skills from courses on lawyering skills and trial advocacy,” he says. “We work on aspects of professional responsibility and ethical behavior and wrap all those together into the representation of a real live human being for whom we're trying to attain a result.”
Jeffrey P. Thennisch, a 1994 graduate of the College of Law, credits Taylor for his long-term interest and passion in his job and for praise from sitting federal judges.
“(My) first experience with Professor Taylor literally served to instill and develop not only an education,” Thennisch says, “but an awakening of interest in the subject matter and a thirst to ‘think through' the rules by myself.”
For Taylor, observing former students practice law is akin to “watching your kid compete in the Olympics.”
“I receive fairly frequent contact from former students, asking substantive questions, asking ethical questions,” he says, “and I'm always impressed how they want to know the right answer and how they want to do the right thing.”
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