Herbert A. Simon Award for Teaching Excellence
School of Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University
Pittsburgh PA 15213-3891
(412)268-8525 . (412)268-5576 (fax)

Those Who Can, Teach!

Mark Stehlik

I have stated my teaching philosophy to my students at the beginning of every class I've taught since 1982. Simply put, I expect the students to work hard and learn, but to enjoy the learning process. It is a pedagogical strategy that insists on excellence both from myself and my students, on challenging the students to think beyond the obvious, on empowering them to learn, and on having fun while doing it.

A cornerstone of my teaching philosophy is that I am a partner in the process with the students. A good teacher cannot just stand in front of the class and pontificate. Teaching is equal parts knowledge of the subject matter, enthusiasm both for the subject and for the craft of teaching, and stand-up comedy. You have to measure the audience to get a sense of who they are and what they can accomplish, both individually and as a group. But it's vitally important to remember that a class is composed of individuals and that one size doesn't fit all. Whether it's an introductory-level course or a senior-level elective, the students will have widely varying levels of ability and enthusiasm for the subject. This challenges the professor to pitch the class at the right level to allow all students to learn something, from the rank novice to the most experienced student.

Of course, it's to the professor's advantage in a senior elective that the students want to be there. In many such courses, you point the way to the students and then stand aside and watch them run (and around here, try to avoid being run over). Intro courses, on the other hand, tend to have students who are there not necessarily to learn, but "merely" to satisfy a College requirement. Here it is necessary for the professor to not only enlighten, but to provide motivation as well as support for these students as they wend their way through the material. I have found some of my most rewarding teaching experiences in illuminating the subject of Computer Science to students who have shown no initial affinity for the subject. I believe that it is precisely in these situations that a true teacher can shine (make that MUST shine) and it is because of so doing that the best can be demanded of and brought out of the students. Light bulbs really can be turned on (I've seen them), and it's the teacher that fuels them. There are few other professions that provide such instantaneous feedback.

I have known that I would be a teacher from the time I was in second grade and taught my Costa Rican next door neighbor to speak English (well, second-grade English, anyway). To be accorded this honor is especially satisfying to me, as this is what I am, and what I have always wanted to be. But in many ways, the following student comment from an old FCE (Faculty Course Evaluation) is as much an accolade as this award:

"Mr. Stehlik was a tremendous help, a great teacher, and a funny guy, too!"

If all those statements are true, then I've done my job both in providing a sound educational experience and in humanizing the process. That's teaching -- and that's why it's one of the hardest, most rewarding jobs there is.


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