by Joe King
and Tom Parisi
This year’s winners of the Presidential Teaching Professorships come from dramatically different disciplines, but all three share traits in common, the most impressive of which is that they don’t just impart information to students.
They also change lives.
Selected for the honor were: Toni Tollerud, of the Department of Counseling, Adult and Higher Education; Dan Gebo of the Department of Anthropology; and Dave Changnon who teaches meteorology in the Department of Geography.
Each has legions of students eager to tell the stories of how these teachers opened their eyes to new vistas, exposed them to new challenges and motivated them to achieve goals they never dreamed could be within their reach. Similarly, their colleagues praise the work of these individuals in the classroom, speaking with admiration of their ability to inspire, energize and mold students.
“We are justifiably proud of the work our faculty does when it comes to research and service, but at the heart of our mission lies teaching. All three of these individuals are truly gifted teachers and their work in the classroom brings great honor to the university,” Provost Ray Alden says.
“They typify the excellence found throughout our teaching ranks and will serve as a tremendous example for all those who aspire to excellence in the classroom.”
The NIU Presidential Teaching Professorships were established in 1991 to recognize and support faculty who excel in the practice of teaching.
Recipients of this award have demonstrated their commitment to and success in the many activities associated with outstanding teaching. The recipients receive budgetary support and release time for the enhancement of their teaching skills.
After four years as a Presidential Teaching Professor, each of these eminent faculty members is designated a Distinguished Teaching Professor.
Students who know him best might describe Meteorology Professor David Changnon in a word: wooshkie.
It’s a term used often among NIU meteorology students and one Changnon coined himself to express his excitement over something wonderful, such as an “aha moment” that a student experiences when a difficult concept suddenly makes sense.
Enthusiastic, challenging, helpful, knowledgeable – that’s how students describe their mentor. Animated and funny, too.
“He definitely uses his comedic skills to make the class laid back,” says graduate student Jenni Prell, who took several of Changnon’s undergraduate courses. She has seen the demonstrative professor spin around, sit on the floor and kiss the blackboard in order to get a learning point across.
“You can’t help but be upbeat around him,” she says. “But he’s also a structured grader, and his courses are very challenging. What sets Dr. Changnon apart is that he really cares about students and goes above and beyond to make sure they understand the material.”
Changnon earned his a Ph.D. in climatology from Colorado State University in 1991 and came to NIU a year later. Even as a rookie professor he knew that he wanted to give students something that was absent from his undergraduate experience at another university.
“I didn’t feel that connectedness with my professors. In a sense, I felt like a number,” he says.
“At NIU, I want to help students succeed, not only by helping them to finish their degrees but also by identifying ways they can challenge themselves – by getting into the honors program, conducting research or publishing a research paper.”
By all accounts, Changnon has been successful. His teaching reputation is such that he was appointed earlier this year to lead an NIU task force exploring ways to improve teaching across the university.
Students credit him with connecting textbooks to their life experiences and inspiring their meteorology careers. An accomplished scholar, Changnon has published dozens of research articles that demonstrate how the science of climatology can be applied to real life, from developing insect migration forecasts for farmers to predicting how El Niño weather patterns will impact businesses and agriculture.
More than a third of his research papers have been co-authored with NIU students.
“I have never met anyone as successful as Dave in integrating scholarship with teaching,” says Andrew Krmenec, chair in NIU’s Department of Geography, which oversees the meteorology program. “Not only are students actively involved in his research projects, but many become lead authors on scientific publications with Dave.”
Changnon also connects students with top professionals in the field. For years, he has provided a stream of interns to one of the nation’s top meteorologists – WGN’s Tom Skilling.
In the mid-1990s, Changnon won a prestigious grant to develop an applied climatology course that also has resulted in students working alongside professionals, winning internships and landing jobs. Students in the course conduct research that helps businesses such as Allstate Insurance, Del Monte Foods and United Airlines make better-informed, weather-sensitive decisions.
Mike Ritsche first met Changnon on a visit to the geography department in 1994. Changnon’s enthusiasm convinced Ritsche to attend NIU, a decision he never regretted.
Ritsche took numerous Changnon courses, published a paper with his professor and now works for Argonne National Laboratory’s Environmental Science Division, traveling the world collecting weather data for climate-change research.
“He’s so positive about everything,” Ritsche says. “Dr. Changnon has encouraged me and others to meet challenges we would have never before thought possible.”
Eric Sargis was pursuing a business degree at NIU in 1990. That’s when he took an introductory course in physical anthropology taught by a young professor, Dan Gebo.
By the semester’s end, Sargis had dramatically changed his career choice.
“I can honestly say that this class changed my life,” Sargis says. He took more of Gebo’s courses, went on to publish with his mentor and is now a professor of anthropology at Yale University.
“Dan is, without exception, the best teacher I have ever had as an undergraduate or graduate student,” Sargis says.
Such words of praise aren’t unusual. Joanna Lambert, now an anthropology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, had a similar experience when she took Gebo’s primate-evolution course.
“From the first day I was galvanized – not only because of the material and content of the course, but because of Dan’s passion and utter dedication to teaching,” she says. Later, as a graduate student, Lambert conducted research with Gebo in Uganda, where she continues to study primate biology and work in conservation.
Gebo, who holds a joint appointment in anthropology and biological sciences, is best known across the university as one of its top researchers. He won the Presidential Research Professorship in 1998 and has produced numerous articles on the biomechanics and evolution of primates for top-tier scholarly journals, including Science and Nature.
His work captures mainstream-press headlines, too, including in 2000 when he led a research team that discovered the fossils of 45-million-year-old, thumb-length primates. The find made the front page of the New York Times, Washington Post and newspapers across the world.
Gebo is equally prolific as a teacher. He began his NIU career in 1987, a year after earning his Ph.D. in anthropology at Duke University. He since has taught nearly 6,000 students, typically leading an introductory anthropology course each semester, along with an advanced course in evolution. He has supervised or been a committee member on 45 master’s-level theses and four dissertations.
Within his department, Gebo has won six outstanding teaching awards, as voted on by students, who appreciate his open-door policy and one-on-one mentoring. Many have co-authored papers with their professor and accompanied him into the field. He also oversees anthropology’s extensive teaching collection and has generously helped fund student travel and research.
In class, Gebo incorporates his own research and introduces new fossils and theories that can’t be found in the textbook.
“I always try to work in new information that might challenge current views on primate or human evolution,” he says. “This allows students to understand that science is not a static, all-is-known enterprise. It also makes them think critically about the stories we tell about evolution.”
He’s also a stickler for good writing, which he believes is essential to any paleontologist’s toolkit. “Good writing equals good thinking,” he says.
It’s not only anthropology students who benefit from Gebo’s university service. Nearly a decade ago, he proposed a concept that became USOAR – for Undergraduate Special Opportunities in Artistry and Research. The program has provided more than 100 undergraduate students from all disciplines with funding for research in the United States and abroad, including in China, Peru, Ireland and Cuba.
“Dr. Gebo’s tenure at NIU contradicts the misconception that brilliant teaching and brilliant research conflict with one another,” colleague Michael Kolb says. “His excellent research skills provide him with an ability to inspire and motivate students in ways that most other faculty cannot.”
As a new gym teacher in 1968, Toni Tollerud spent weeks helping a high school senior build the strength and confidence to do a simple somersault. The interaction taught Tollerud lessons about teaching that she has never forgotten, and students have been flipping for her ever since.
That student confirmed for Tollerud that teachers truly can change the lives of their students. She also helped her develop a teaching philosophy built around: lessons that are as relevant as possible; always using innovative teaching techniques; and building relationships with students based upon clear expectations, respect and trust. Forty years later, the formula is still working and drawing rave reviews.
“Toni epitomizes what a teacher needs to be. She always makes you stretch, always makes you go for your vey best,” says Sandra Kakacek, a counselor with more than two decades of experience who decided to pursue her doctorate after meeting Tollerud.
Applying that same standard to herself, Tollerud throws herself into her work so completely that colleagues have a difficult time separating Toni-the-teacher from Toni-the-person.
“Toni lives her work. Her identity as a teacher is who she is. She is naturally gifted in front of the class and an excellent mentor,” says longtime friend and co-worker Francesca Giordano who, as the assistant chair of Counseling, Adult and Higher Education, frequently asks Tollerud to work with young teachers in the department.
The passion and energy that she brings to the classroom helps many students reach goals they never imagined possible.
“She gave me the strength, inspiration and will to push myself like I have never pushed myself before,” says Andrew Franklin, a counselor at Kaneland High School. “For the first time in my life I discovered my true career path, something I had been searching for since I was a kid.”
Like many of her former students, Franklin has joined with Tollerud in trying to raise the profile and status of school counseling in Illinois. Last year, he was part of an effort that got the Illinois Education Association to include language in its platform to formally recognize (for the first time) school counselors and the importance of their work.
That kind of breakthrough was a distant dream for Tollerud when she arrived at NIU in August of 1990 and was given the directive to create one of the best counseling programs in the state.
To achieve that goal she worked to enhance and reshape the curriculum and direction of the counseling program for undergraduate and graduate level students. She also created the Illinois School Counselors Academy to improve the skills of counseling practitioners, and later the School Counselor’s Institute, which works to help educators who wish to make the transition from the classroom to counseling.
Those efforts helped her establish a reputation across the state and in 2000 earned her the Outstanding Mentor Award from the North Central Association for Counselor Educators and Supervisors. In 2002 the college of education selected her to receive the award for Extraordinary Contribution in Service and Outreach in 2002.
Currently, Tollerud serves as the director of training for the Center for Child Welfare and Education, but she keeps her hand in teaching by leading training sessions and professional development courses. Staying away from the classroom simply would leave too big a void in her life.
“Teaching energizes me,” she says. “Students in my classes are there because they want to do a better job as counselors, teachers or administrators, and my goal is to help them be more passionate about what they are doing.”