Only during a pandemic would the following have happened: Zoom meetings, whereby Provost Kevin Carman “Zoom-bombed” his way into the Zoom gatherings for the School of Community Health Sciences and the College of Science to “personally” present the F. Donald Tibbitts Distinguished Teacher Award to Amy Fitch of the School of Community Health Sciences and Elena Pravosudova of the College of Science.
All seemed normal as Trudy Larson, dean of the School of Community Health Sciences, called her third “What’s Up Doc?” virtual town hall of faculty and staff to order earlier this month.
“We have some visitors with us here today, and I’d like to welcome Dr. Kevin Carman, who has some guests and would like to speak with you today,” she said.
“This is my first ‘Zoom-bombing’ experience, and I’m very excited about that,” said Carman, his face taking center stage of the Zoom screen. He added, “As you may already know, the University has been honoring outstanding teachers for quite some time. And in 1973 the Tibbitts Award was appropriately enough awarded to F. Donald Tibbitts. Ever since then, we have been identifying each year outstanding classroom instruction.”
Carman paused, and looked at the many “Brady Bunch” squares of faces from the more than 100 faculty and staff attending Larson’s weekly school meeting.
“It gives me great pleasure … and I understand you are out there somewhere, Amy … to recognize you, Amy Fitch, as the Tibbitts Award winner for 2020. So congratulations to you,” Carman said.
Fitch, appearing surprised, smiled broadly and replied, “My heart started racing when you started talking and I noticed Ann-Marie (Vollstedt, one of last year’s Tibbitts winners who was also a Zoom-bomber) and Sergiu (Dascalu, another former Tibbitts winner who chaired this year’s Tibbitts committee and another Zoom-bomber) and a few others were on the Zoom. I’m not easily flustered, but I’m a little overwhelmed right now. And I never expected that I would ever accept a teaching award in my bedroom.”
Two days later, Pravosudova learned she had also won the Tibbitts when Carman, yet again, delivered the news via Zoom-bomb.
Even before Carman was able to deliver the announcement, Pravosudova seemed to have an inkling something was amiss.
“I’m a little suspicious since you didn’t send an agenda,” she said, smiling, to College of Science Dean Jeff Thompson and Biology Department Chair Jack Hayes. Both Thompson and Hayes did their best to maintain their innocence, shrugging their shoulders.
Carman then helped Hayes and Thompson off the hook.
“In the modern vernacular, Elena, this is what we call a Zoom-bomb,” he said. “I’m pleased to share with you what I hope you’ll agree is some good news. The Tibbitts Excellence in Teaching Award has been awarded on campus since 1973. It recognizes teaching excellence among our faculty. You’ve been reviewed and considered this year and have been selected as one of our two recipients of our Tibbitts Award. You’re richly deserving of this award … I do regret I could not burst into your classroom and more fully embarrass you, like we typically do.”
“I knew there was something happening,” Pravosudova said.
A few days later, once the news had sunk in, both Fitch and Pravosudova, who have been members of the faculty at the University for more than a decade, took time to discuss their path to teaching, their teaching philosophies and what, at the end of the day, spurs them to become even better teachers.
Amy Fitch: “This is what I’m here for”
To be honest, Fitch said she wasn’t expecting good news regarding her Tibbitts selection. Traditionally the award is presented when Carman walks into an unsuspecting classroom sometime in late March or early April.
“I really thought no news would be bad news,” she said. “I thought I would’ve already heard by now. I was sort of waiting for the letter in the mail that said, ‘Thank you, but you weren’t selected this year.’ I was really surprised when it did happen.” Then Fitch added, with a gentle chuckle, “If surprising and embarrassing me was the goal, then Provost Carman and the members of the Tibbitts committee, they certainly accomplished that goal. It was great.”
Fitch’s path to campus was in some ways an unconventional one. She could have easily ended up in an entirely different field if not for a chance “elective” course she took during her senior year at the University of Texas in Austin. She was a psychology major, and signed up for an epidemiology course from one of UT’s finest professors, Marc Lewis. Lewis is such a gifted public speaker that his 2000 Commencement speech at Texas has been called by NPR one of the greatest commencement speeches ever given.
“I always tell my students this story in my CHS 101 class, when I introduce my Epidemiology and Surveillance lecture, how it was an elective class, it was highly coveted, and I was one of the first students to register for it,” she said. “And, I tell them that this was in the days of paper dictionaries and I had to look up the word ‘epidemiology’ in the dictionary – after I’d registered for the class – because I didn’t know what that word meant.. My whole world changed. That class shifted my whole trajectory.”
What made the class special wasn’t just that it had a talented teacher directing it. In many ways, it left an important imprint for Fitch, particularly years later as she developed her own teaching style.
“It was a very hands-on class,” she said. “There were 16 of us. We all got to be very creative. We designed our own diseases and outbreaks, and they all had to be scientifically valid. We would do these investigations. It was this eye-opening experience of the detective work that is such a part of infectious diseases and outbreak investigation. I took another public health course and loved it just as much. That’s informed a great deal of my teaching – you can teach things in a variety of ways, and teach it in a way that’s interesting and meaningful to the student.”
After receiving her master’s in public health from UC-Berkeley, Fitch worked in a variety roles, including working for UCSF and as the education and training coordinator for the Washoe County Health District’s public health preparedness program before coming to campus in 2008. Her professional experience, along with her teaching in the School of Community Health Sciences, which is preparing the next generation of public health practitioners, have helped Fitch present a wide variety of experiences for case studies and other examples in the classroom.
“A small bright side of what’s happening in the world right now is (the COVID-19 pandemic) is bringing attention to our field and is helping people understand why the work public health professionals do is so important,” she said.
In the classroom, Fitch emphasizes engagement in the material she teaches. A PowerPoint minimalist, she sees assignments not as a means to an end but rather a series of ongoing reinforcements and learnings. The architecture of her teaching includes “scaffolding,” where instead of having students write a paper, there could be as many four other assignments, each with specific intention and purposes, that lead up to that final paper. She’s also a believer in the “feel” of the classroom. She studies her students’ expressions carefully to ensure that key concepts are understood.
Given the current “Zoom” nature of the University’s online instruction, she says delivery since mid-March when instruction moved online, though a challenge, has nevertheless proven rewarding.
“It’s definitely been a challenge, but it’s going better than I thought it would,” she said. “Above all else, I wanted to make sure my students were getting the main things they would be getting if we were in a classroom together, and not short-change them in any way. I also wanted it to be flexible. I didn’t want them, with so many things going in the world right now, to stress. It feels like we’re accomplishing what we need to accomplish.”
Married, and with two school-aged sons to manage, Fitch has a lot on her plate these days, which also includes being an avid rock climber, a cycling enthusiast/advocate who has used her expertise in public health to help make two-wheel transportation safer and more prevalent on the University campus and throughout northern Nevada. “More of a see-saw than a balance sometimes,” she said of her many roles. Still, if that isn’t already enough, there is always more to do, she believes.
“I love teaching,” she said. “I think I will always teach and I think I will always want to continue to improve at it. I’m also getting more involved with curriculum and assessment as director of undergraduate studies. I’ll continue to do that as well. I’m also going back on the other side of the classroom to work on getting my Ph.D. in interdisciplinary environmental science. Sometimes I wonder why I’m doing all of this. I’m kind of driven to always expand my expertise, and reach that next level in what I do.”
That’s why Fitch was heartened a few months ago as she looked through old files of course slides and syllabi she had used. Through her old files, she could see her growth as an instructor. Many of the precepts she uses today were becoming fully formed a decade ago – less is more on the slides, a running list of what worked and what didn’t each semester, a greater confidence that higher expectations for her students would not drown them in frustration but would actually help them grow.
“Looking at some of those things from very early on, I was really struck by how different the slides were then as opposed to now,” she said. “I wasn’t aware of how much I’d evolved. When I started teaching, it hadn’t occurred to me as a career. It took me a few years to figure out what I needed to do.
“It became something to really focus on. Over time I started to think, ‘How can I make this better? How can I do better as a teacher?’ I feel I put a lot of time and effort into what I do. There is always something I want to fix, and there is always something I want to improve on.”
She added of her teaching, “This is what I’m here for.”
Elena Pravosudova: “If I ever stop self-reflecting and improving, it’s time to retire”
All teachers owe a debt to the other teachers they have encountered throughout their careers. The influence can often be profound. For Elena Pravosudova, of the many important teachers she has had the privilege of learning from throughout her life, there is one in particular that she remembers with fondness, reverence and with a sense of extreme gratitude.
Pravosudova grew up in St. Petersburg, Russia, one of the most populous northern-most cities in the world, located at the head of the Gulf of Finland on the Baltic Sea. Both her father and mother were engineers.
“I have not a single engineering bone in my body,” she said. “Whenever I open a package, eventually I can figure it out, though it may take me some time. I can’t help but have panicky feelings about engineering.”
Her grandmother – Elena Ivanovna Slutskaya – who taught English at the Naval Academy in St. Petersburg, was different.
“None of her children knew English, so I was her guinea pig,” Pravosudova said, with a wistful laugh, remembering the times how she would often “play” school and would set her toys on a linoleum blackboard, imitating her grandmother. “We spent a lot of time together. From a very early age, from early childhood, she instilled in me a feeling that teachers are just so cool. Maybe I inherited something from her. It was on the back burner, and it took me years to realize it, but wanting to teach … I think it was my grandmother who really influenced me.”
Her love of her chosen academic field, biology, can also be traced to another teacher. Her biology teacher, Vladislav Stepanovich Godlevskiy, in high school was a World War II veteran who looked at biology not as a discipline to be studied but rather as a jumping-off point toward self-realization and fulfillment.
“He taught us how to study,” Pravosudova said. “He was a very interesting person. He would take us to student theater productions, and we would write reflections, not about biology, but about what we saw and what it meant.”
Pravosudova came to the United States in 1990s with her husband, Vladimir (a Foundation Professor of Biology who is one of the Biology Department’s most accomplished researchers and teachers) for graduate studies. Her original path, like her husband’s, was in ornithology, or the study of birds. She loved the field work associated with the research, and was motivated by how the complex work was similar to solving a mystery.
“I love mysteries … the mystery movies you watch on PBS where there is so much going on,” she said. “Science is like that – you’re trying to figure out the mystery of something.”
While working on her Ph.D. at Ohio State University, she became a teaching assistant.
“It clicked a couple of semesters in, that this is what I want to do when I grow up,” she said. “The thrill of discovery that you find in science is hard to replicate, and it was still alluring, but emotionally and creatively, I’m a people person at heart. I feed off interaction with others. “When we reciprocate, and exchange thoughts and ideas and you see something important click for the other person, it’s just pure joy that you cannot find anywhere else.”
In the mind’s eye, there is always a certain way of looking at teaching. A solitary figure stands in front of a classroom, talking to 30 or more students. It can look lonely. Until you talk to Pravosudova about her teaching. It becomes clear that there isn’t anything solitary at all about what she does. Hers is a collaborative approach, reliant on the perspectives and talents of colleagues within her department, and peer groups within each class she teaches.
For many years now, the lower-division courses she has taught are based on the precept that students learn most effectively when there is constant activity, peer-led discussion and engagement that pulls students into the course material rather than away from it.
“They have to have an experience that mimics the hands-on,” Pravosudova said. “My students might think that they prefer to sit back and enjoy the show and absorb it from afar. But I don’t believe they learn as well that way. When they are forced out of their comfort zone and are put into small groups, then the learning occurs. That’s why they aren’t excited at first. It’s uncomfortable and different for them at first. It’s interesting, but three or four years afterward, I’ve had students come back and thank me for how they were taught.”
Pravosudova, working in concert with other talented teaching faculty in the Department of Biology like Pamela Sandstrom, a past recipient of the Alan Bible Excellence in Teaching Award, have created a learning culture where peer instruction and mentorship are key pieces in the educational experience.
Pravosudova also teaches an upper division course, Biology 495, “Peer Leadership in Biology,” where students truly become part of the peer instruction pipeline in the department. In Biology 495, the 18 to 20 students enrolled become course coordinators, peer discussion and mentoring trainers and leaders and observers of the discussion groups. In the course of the semester, the students create a teaching portfolio from all the varied experiences they undertake.
“There are so many moving parts,” Pravosudova said.
Since she began her career teaching at the University in 2007-2008, Pravosudova estimates she’s worked with more than 500 peer leaders, and together, she and the leaders have taught countless students in a memorable way.
“I’m a parent figure … and you know how we react to our parents,” she said. “When the students are taught by their peers, in addition to the content professor, the results are usually very special.”
Given the special interaction that goes on in her classrooms, Pravosudova said that the past several weeks of course instruction online has required even more planning in order to ensure her students are receiving the expected educational benefits. She’s worked hard, even while on Zoom, to ensure that active learning is constant.
“This has been my life for the last month,” she said. “I’m still trying to incorporate all of the various ways you can get and share feedback. I’m finding that I’m doing more explanation rather than being too content-heavy. And here’s the cool part. The learning assistants who would have been in the classroom with us are now recording their own walk-throughs, and the students are now watching those videos as well to help explain the content.
“There is definitely an energy in the classroom that you cannot replicate. There is still an awkwardness with Zoom, but it’s clearly the best we can do at this point. It’s been really hard emotionally for me. I feel more exhausted emotionally, more than anything else, at the end of a class.”
The time has also been challenging for Pravosudova in other ways, too. Her 83-year-old mother Veronika is still in St. Petersburg. Her daughter, Sasha, along with her 5-year-old grandson, Maks, and son-in-law Andrew, live in Reno; her son Kyesha lives in Sacramento. Plans for the end-of-the-semester picnic that she holds in her backyard for her peer leaders and graduates are on hold.
“You worry about everyone,” she said. “It’s very hard. Hopefully there is some light at the end of the tunnel. It’s such a strange time. Usually at this time of year there is a sense of joy that you have when your students are turning their final in, and everyone is smiling, and Commencement is nearing. All of that great emotion you feel as the semester draws to a close.
“I don’t know if there is way I can replicate that right now.”
Even if some of it – the sense of in-person accomplishment of concluding a challenging semester by handing in a final and exchanging a few hopeful words with your instructor, the beautiful possibility of the campus in May – can’t be fully repeated right now, Pravosudova isn’t the type who completely gives up on such things.
Rather, if anything, her work to be the best teacher she possibly can continues, and will continue, for a quite some time to come.
“If I ever stop self-reflecting and improving, it’s time to retire,” she said. “This is the thing I love about my profession. Stagnation is the worst thing that can ever happen to a person. That is what I’m scared of the most. I try to keep learning … from other instructors and observing other people’s teaching, from my students and from our peer instructors. All of it just invigorates me. “My grandmother always said that she liked being a teacher so much because it keeps you young at heart. That’s what teaching does for me. It helps keep me young at heart.”