Why I decided to teach: 2022 Dean’s Distinguished Teaching Award Honorees Give Insight into Professorship

2022 Deans Distinguished Teaching AwardThe University of Pittsburgh School of Nursing recognized three professors with this year’s Dean’s Distinguished Teaching Award. Judith Zedreck Gonzalez, DNP, MPM, NEA-BC is the 2022 Appointment Stream winner, while two professors were awarded the 2022 Tenure Track: Christopher Imes, PhD, RN and Jill Demirci, PhD, RN, IBCLC. The trio were recognized during the June 27th Total Faculty Meeting.

“We value excellence in teaching, and it is a true pleasure to discover the outstanding work done by faculty, such as these three exemplars, and to recognize their work through the Distinguished Teaching Award,” said Jaqueline Dunbar-Jacob, PhD, RN, FAAN, Dean and Distinguished Service Professor of Nursing.

Pitt Nursing wanted to know why these esteemed professors got into teaching in the first place and what it means to be part of the faculty at the School of Nursing. Here’s a Q&A with this year’s Dean’s Distinguished Teaching Award Honorees.

Why did you decide to teach?

IMES: As an undergraduate student, I was lucky enough to be taught and mentored by several amazing instructors and professors. Their ability to teach difficult concepts or seemly impossible nursing skills served as an inspiration for me to hopefully do the same.

DEMIRCI: When I was doing my PhD, my first love was research. But with most academic research appointments, teaching is a part of the job. Thankfully, I have really enjoyed teaching/mentoring and found it to be fulfilling in ways that research is not. Research is a long game--you design it, conduct it, disseminate it, and it can take years after that for anything to be adopted into clinical practice, if at all. With teaching and mentorship, you get to see students grow in their knowledge, confidence, and leadership in real-time! I love the way students think and come to projects, discussions, and assignments with their unique perspectives—it makes me rethink what I know and makes me a better researcher, teacher, and person. I loved learning as a student, and I feel like with teaching/mentoring, I get to continue learning.

ZEDRECK: My decision to teach in this program was driven by my experience as a healthcare executive. I was in a management position in an organization undergoing a great deal of leadership and structural transition. I found myself reporting in many different structures and without a consistent mentor. I wanted to ensure I was making sound decisions based on good management evidence. I elected to come back to Pitt and began taking courses in the doctoral leadership program. I found it very valuable in validating that I was using the most current evidence and decision-making in my leadership role. After a year, it was noted and questioned why I wasn’t enrolled in the DNP program?  I was at a top executive level and didn’t aspire for any role requiring more education. So, while I didn’t need a DNP for that purpose, I was reminded that my master’s degree was in business and without a second degree in nursing, I would not have an opportunity to be teaching full-time in nursing. I had begun to see how I could share my experiences with other nursing leadership or nurses new to leadership, and I realized the DNP would allow me to achieve that goal. After completing my DNP, the program coordinator role and faculty position in the DNP leadership program became available, and I was able to experience this wonderful transition from industry to academia.

What was your path to teaching like?

IMES: In my undergraduate nursing program, I figured out that I wanted to get a PhD. But because I received an Army Reserve Officer's Training Corps (ROTC) Scholarship, I knew it would be several years before I could accomplish this goal. However, my first teaching experiences started long before going back to school. While serving as a bedside nurse, I became a Pediatric Advance Life Support (PALS) instructor. During my deployment to Afghanistan, I trained Afghan nurses so they could better assistant the military nurses in providing patient care. During my last military assignment, I was responsible for our ICU staff education and lead the hospital-wide restraint training program. Additionally, throughout my military service I oriented new staff members. So, I was doing a lot of training and teaching of clinical staff. My first "formal" experience with teaching began once I started the Assistant Professor position at the School of Nursing. 

DEMIRCI: I started teaching when I was doing my PhD at the School of Nursing. I did lectures for a Masters-level research methods course and for an undergraduate senior special topics course in perinatal health. During my postdoctoral fellowship, I co-mentored students across the health sciences and did lectures for residents and fellows on lactation/breastfeeding support. As a new faculty member, I was (and still am) a clinical instructor for the undergraduate OB clinical course—to this, I bring my clinical experiences as a lactation consultant and postpartum nurse. I also mentor undergraduates and PhD students on their research projects. With my role as Director of the BSN Honors Program, I teach NUR0005, the Honors Freshman Seminar.

ZEDRECK: When I first got out of nursing school and was working as a staff nurse, I had an opportunity to become a clinical instructor. I absolutely loved the role of educating and precepting new RNs and believed my ultimate professional goal would be to become a masters prepared clinical instructor. Meanwhile in my clinical unit, I was asked to assume an interim management position which became permanent. I quickly learned that as a manager, I was responsible for ongoing teaching and mentoring. In addition, during the time I was in management positions, I was an adjunct faculty member at the University.  I had a perfect blend of education in my leadership role as well as teaching in a formal classroom setting. In the most recent chapter, after working 35+ years in healthcare leadership, I found the opportunity to teach full time in the DNP Health Systems Executive Leadership (HSEL) program and has taken me full circle back into that full time educator role. 

Why did you choose to teach at Pitt Nursing and what’s keeping you here?

IMES: Pitt Nursing is one of the best schools of Nursing in the country, if not the world. Being at the University provides me with the opportunities that I need to successfully the fulfill the School's mission of teaching, scholarship, and service.

DEMIRCI: I was an undergraduate and PhD student at Pitt Nursing. I learned from the best of the best—top researchers and nurse educators in their fields. I remember being so impressed by so many of my professors. I dreamt of having that level of knowledge and experience and, perhaps one day, teaching in those same lecture halls. One of my best teachers/mentors at Pitt Nursing was the late, great Dr. Susan Cohen. She always pushed me to dig deeper, to think more critically and reflexively, and was the biggest advocate for students. It is an honor to teach in the same place that she did and to pass on her lessons to my students.

What keeps me here and engaged in Pitt Nursing’s education mission is our school’s commitment to constant innovation. Since I’ve been an undergraduate, there have been so many initiatives and programs to improve nursing education—from the Undergraduate Research Mentorship Program, the BSN Honors Program, to continuing education in teaching/learning for faculty. There are also multiple funding opportunities and incentives for faculty to create new courses, certificates, and programs--and improve existing courses through new content, methods, and equipment.

ZEDRECK: I love the energy that is re-introduced to me the by students. Working 35+ years in leadership gave me great experiences and growth, however, it is exciting to realize there continues to be something new to learn. While I have a set of skills and volumes of experience to share with my students, I find that I can apply those experiences in different ways to address the challenges nursing leaders have today. I can help them successfully navigate those challenges and continue to learn and find new opportunities. 

What do you find most rewarding?

IMES: Teaching a large class of 100+ students can be challenging. In classes like those, I find our in-class discussions to be very rewarding.  This gives me the opportunity to see that the students are understanding the content and materials. Sometimes you get see that "aha moment" which is very satisfying.  Additionally, one-on-one interactions with students (e.g., answering questions before or after class, meeting to discuss assignments or review exams, working with the students as they help with research projects) are very rewarding.

DEMIRCI: Being a part of a student’s journey. When I see students get their dream job, achieve a big education or career milestone, or make a difference for patients or the community, it feels even better than a personal achievement. I would also say the direct day-to-day interactions are so fun—students have some of the most creative, thoughtful ideas and questions. The discussions we have keep me curious and give me hope that we can solve some of the biggest challenges in healthcare and the world.

ZEDRECK: What I find most rewarding is the excitement when you share something with them, and you can see they have applied it to their specific roles and challenges, and they are now looking through a different or more enlightened lens. 

Sometimes it’s the next semester and I will get a call from a previous student who will say “l remember you saying this will be meaningful to you someday and last week it happened to me!”.  Those moments along with the fact that I continue to grow in this role as a professor at Pitt is extremely rewarding and far exceeds my expectations.  I always loved teaching and the fresh eyes and ears of students, but this has exceeded my expectations. 

Pitt Nursing is where students and faculty members go to change the world, and we want you to help leave that lasting impact. The School of Nursing currently has several faculty positions open and we’re looking for qualified applicants to apply.