They are the best of the best. As the winners of the 2018 F. Donald Tibbitts Distinguished Teacher Award, Dianna Townsend of the College of
Education and Shannon Richard of the Orvis School of Nursing represent two entirely different academic disciplines.Yet there are important similarities, most notably the passion both Townsend and Richard feel for their students, and the craft of teaching.Here are their stories.
Teaching has always been a big part of Dianna Townsend's life.
Both of her parents, Kathy and Carl, started their careers as teachers. They're the type of people who teach, nurture and inspire naturally; over the years, they have taken care of 20 foster kids, in addition to their own children.
Townsend's older sister, Jessica, has a Ph.D. from MIT in aeronautical engineering and is an associate dean at Olin College in Needham, Mass. Townsend even considers her brother, Peter, who lives in Dublin, Ireland and has had a successful leadership career in the financial services field, a teacher as well, given his ability to "be a leader, a presenter, and an excellent communicator."
"Even when I was young, I've always felt like a teacher," she says. She was a high school English teacher upon graduation from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. An avid outdoors person who loves backcountry skiing and whitewater kayaking, she'd also been an outdoor counselor and instructor. Before that, she was always the neighborhood babysitter. "It's always been in my blood. This is where my heart is. I've always been a teacher in some capacity."
Although the support of her family (including her husband, Tyler, and son Wyatt, 7, and daughter Willow, 5) has been important, and helps to somewhat explain why she has chosen the path of being an educator, there was more at play earlier this month when Provost Kevin Carman, College of Education Dean Ken Coll, and several members of the college's literacy studies faculty and staff showed up in Townsend's classroom to present her with the 2018 F. Donald Tibbitts Distinguished Teacher Award.
The award caught Townsend, an associate professor of literacy studies who has been at the University since 2007, off-guard. A few moments earlier, she was so intent on getting her EDRL 451/651 class, "Reading and Writing in the Secondary School," class started that she didn't put two and two together as she walked by the presentation committee in the hallway just outside her classroom.
"Dianna, hurry up and get to your class," playfully called one of Townsend's literacy studies colleagues, Foundation Professor Diane Barone. Townsend waved and looked like it was any other day for her.
But once Carman announced in front of the class that Townsend had won, the enormity of the moment seemed to hit.
"My heart is thumping right now," Townsend said to her class. She paused, and flashed a heartfelt smile. "I just to want thank my students. We have such amazing students. You make us better teachers. There is no question about that. We keep showing up, and you keep doing the amazing work that makes what we do as teachers seem so worthwhile. Thank you for being such great students."
For an impromptu speech, Townsend's words resonated. Several of her students looked like they were about to cry as she spoke to them.
Reflecting on the moment a few days later, Townsend said it was more than her heart that was thumping. She said once Carman and the presentation group had exited her classroom, she and her class took about 10 minutes, simply to settle down and to talk about what had just happened.
"I had to sit down," she said. "I was reeling. My knees were shaking, non-stop."
The slow-down, sit-down moment to fully process what had just happened wasn't surprising for Townsend, who speaks often, and passionately, about how education is a very personal journey, experienced in different ways and through different perspectives, by a whole host of different people.
Each class she teaches, she says, is an opportunity for a group of people to experience an "incredibly human, messy, and awesome thing, where you are in it together with each other."
Hers is a teaching style centered directly on her students: "I'm very focused on my students, on their own rich life journeys. I want to honor them and their experiences. It's a really dynamic dialogue you're having with them. I just love that part of my teaching - the constant back-and-forth that I have with my students."
Don't think for a second, though, that Townsend's classes are powered by unstructured stream-of-consciousness.
Quite the opposite, actually.
"I have very clear objectives in place for each and every class," she said. "Every day, there are exit slips, and there is a lot of group discussion to find out, ‘Where are you in terms of our objectives?' I feel a real responsibility for my students' success. I want to know, with each class, that they're learning."
Even after several years at the University, Townsend feels that she, too, is still learning. Her progression and growth as a teacher since she taught high school English (and Psychology) in Massachusetts in the early 2000s has been due in large part to her willingness to challenge herself and to tackle new responsibilities.
The first big jump occurred when Townsend and her then-boyfriend (and now husband), Tyler, moved from Massachusetts to Laguna Beach, Calif. Townsend wasn't certified to teach in California, so she became a special education instructor.
Townsend pursued her doctoral degree at UC-Irvine. She found that the quantitative work involved in the pursuit of her doctorate was to her liking. Her scholarly and research endeavors today include language development of adolescent students, with specific attention to academic vocabulary. She examines both the unique academic language demands of the disciplines and the effective instructional strategies to help students understand and use academic language in and across disciplines.
"There was just something about looking systematically at issues in literacy - it was a perspective where you step back and do a careful investigation to find ways that might help guide this great complexity that we have in the classroom," she said. "Taking time to study the reading and learning patterns of, say, 300 kids, and applying the findings to teaching and learning strategies, is intellectually satisfying to me. I also know it's helped me become a better teacher."
Today, in addition to her classroom teaching prowess, Townsend is graduate program director for the Literacy Studies M.Ed. Program. The job also involves an online teaching component, which Townsend feels she is slowly, but surely, finding ways to connect with her online graduate students.
"I feel I'm building that effective tool kit that you need to be a successful instructor, now in an online environment," she said. "That said, I feel there are just so many ways I can still develop and grow."
Townsend smiled when asked if she was the same teacher who was stood in front of a high school English class at Chapel Hill Chauncy Hall School in Waltham, Mass., back in 2000.
"I was a very typical new teacher," she said. "I think I had some good instincts, but I made some big mistakes. I've learned to check my biases and assumptions about my students. That's still one of the most important journeys all of us need to make, to learn how to confront our biases and try not to assume anything about how someone will make sense of new ideas.
"I've come to realize that we all benefit if we understand how all students bring really differnet life experiences to the classroom. I've realized masterful teachers can only come to that realization, and figure out how to use it to support their students, over years of experience. I'm also a lot more humble now than I was then.
"It doesn't take much in our line of work to be humbled."
Speaking of being humbled, that was what transpired as Townsend and her class spent those 10 minutes together following the announcement of her award.
In the weeks previous, as members of the Tibbitts selection committee had come in to observe her class, Townsend hadn't let on that she was under consideration for the University's most prestigious teaching award. She didn't want her students to behave any differently with observers in the room, so she introduced the committee members simply as "guests."
Now, with her knees shaking, feeling a bit breathless, and having to sit down, Towsend and her students shared what it had all meant.
"You could see in their eyes, they were all sort of, ‘Whoa,'" Townsend remembered. "I think I shed a tear or two with them. I was feeling overwhelmed."
The class had a major assignment due later on in the week. Her students had been giving it their all, all semester. Townsend decided that everyone needed a break of some sort. "I told them, ‘We'll take another week'" for the major assignment.
"And then a few definitely started tearing up," Townsend said, "and it felt like we all cried, together."
She added, "I couldn't do what I do without them. UNR students are awesome. I love our students."
(Shannon Richard, pictured above, middle, after receiving the news she had won the Tibbitts from Orvis Dean Patsy Ruchala.)
It might have been a first in the 45-year history of the F. Donald Tibbitts Distinguished Teacher Award.
The party of people who were to present Shannon Richard, an assistant professor of nursing, with her award in her classroom in the Pennington Health Sciences Education Building had to wait outside while Richard administered a quiz to her Pathophysiology/Pharmacology class covering of all things, G.I. issues.
Richard was nice, but firm when she said to Orvis School of Nursing Dean Patsy Ruchala, Vice Provost Joe Cline and several other faculty and staff members, "We're take a quiz on G.I. issues. Can you please come back in 15 minutes?"
While the party waited outside, eventually one of the early finishers of the quiz, a young man named Greg, walked outside the classroom to stretch his legs.
He was asked about Richard's teaching style.
"She's the best," Greg said. "She has this way of making all of the material, and all of her classes, fun and interesting."
Susan Ervin, an assistant professor of nursing, one of Richard's mentors and the 2012 winner of the Tibbitts Award, said that Richard's ability to make classes fun and interesting wasn't some sort of fluke occurrence.
"She's just so creative," Ervin said. "She's innovative and creative. With every class, there is a strong focus on student engagement and active learning. Shannon will do Twitter polls in the middle of the class to see how well her students are learning. There is this continuous sense of energy and engagement in her classrooms."
Then Ervin, added: "Shannon has so much potential. I told her once, ‘You are going to be running this place one day.' We are so lucky to have her on the faculty at Orvis."
Richard's road to the University hasn't followed the typical academic sequence for most faculty: undergraduate study followed by graduate work followed by a fulltime faculty appointment.
And yet, to her Richard tell it, there has been a natural flow leading to where she is today.
"To me, there has been a natural progression," she said. "There has always been, first, a love of teaching and, as I've made the progression, a love of nursing."
Growing up in Chula Vista, near San Diego, Richard played sports, and in an early nod to what was to come in her nursing career, developed her own self-care to treat her sports-related injuries. She also taught swim courses, and loved seeing her students master the skills she was teaching them. When she graduated from high school, she wasn't quite sure what she would do next. Her mother encouraged her to do something productive, and told her to entertain the notion of joining the domestic AmeriCorps, which was founded in the early 1990s as a federally funded voluntary civil society program to help communities meet critical needs.
"I didn't know where to go, and my mother told me, ‘Go to the domestic AmeriCorps and figure it out,'" Richard said.
Very quickly, Richard found that the AmeriCorps ethos of helping others was exactly what she was looking for. An instinct for nursing began to surface not long after. When she and the other AmeriCorps volunteers would travel to tornado-ravaged regions of the country, it was Richard who would serve as the first aid provider.
"When there would be injuries, and people would say, ‘Shannon, we need you,' I'd be the one with the huge first aid pack," she said. "I got so much joy out of that experience."
When she finished her time with AmeriCorps, Richard then became an EMT. Not long after that, while living in Carson City with her husband, Victor, she enrolled in the two-year nursing program at Western Nevada College.
She became a fulltime emergency room nurse, and for several years felt the high-energy, fast-paced world of the ER was enough.
"But then it became routine," she said. "It was definitely important work. I enjoyed it, but I felt like I wasn't progressing the way I should. I asked myself, ‘What should I do to get out of this rut?'"
She concluded she had three choices: she could pursue a leadership position in the hospital, or she could go back to school to become either a nurse practitioner or a nurse educator.
"I'd always loved the feeling of being a teacher," she said. "I remembered some of my earlier experiences, with the after-school programs, with swim programs, and how much joy teaching gave me."
She has since earned her bachelor's and her master's degrees in nursing from Orvis. Her teaching load includes courses in "Care of Clients with Complex Health Problems," "Nursing Care of Individuals and Families," and "Pathophysiology/Pharmacology II," among others.
Richard said she's proud to be a "homegrown" faculty member of Orvis, with several faculty having been her teachers as she's earned her degrees.
"I've formed some wonderful relationships in the school because of that," she said. "I've always felt supported, and welcomed, by the people of Orvis."
Richard said her teaching style is informed by her own experiences, but perhaps just as importantly, by the study she's done of the different styles of learning in classrooms.
"I've done a lot of research on neuro-cognitive learning, and it often boils down to for every class, you only have about 10 or 15 minutes where the student is going to fully process the information you are presenting," she said. "So that's what I work with. Not just telling stories, but breaking up the information, and the class, into pieces. I'll present information, then give my students a little break, then we'll go to in-class activities, and then I get to go around the classroom and see how much of the knowledge they've learned.
"You have to make the content even more relevant and you have to be even more energetic in the present moment if you want your students to learn what they will need once they are out there, managing the care of their patients."
Even now, even as she has been recognized as 2018's Tibbitts Award winner, Richard still feels a need to progress, to learn more. To that end, she is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in nursing through a program at UNLV. In addition to her family responsibilities, which include not only her husband but the couple's 19-year-old son, Micah, Richard still finds time to work on weekends as an ER nurse.
It's a busy time for her, but it's also a time filled with excitement and fulfillment that she is pursuing her best self.
"The Ph.D. program is a big step, but I need to just take it one step at a time," she said. "I get very excited when I think about what a Ph.D. might mean - teaching in the graduate program after that, teaching a different kind of student, being in more of a peer-to-peer setting. That's exciting, and it feels, again, like it's part of my growth and progression. It's definitely why I feel it's necessary to ask more of myself, to reach the doctorate level."
Richard was then asked about the quiz she had administered a few days earlier, how it made her dean and the University provost wait in the hallway for a few minutes before they could present her with a well-deserved award.
"Oh boy," she said. "Well, I really push civility in my classrooms, particularly during quizzes. I didn't feel like I should interrupt something like that."
She smiled, and added, "I was so overwhelmed, though, once the dean and everyone else came back into the classroom. My heart was racing the whole time. I wasn't sure what was happening ... and then when I did ... it was such a neat outcome."