My Teaching Philosophy as the Loyola Marymount University 2017 Distinguished Teaching Award Recipient

Loyola Marymount University 2017 Teaching Award - Professor Ellen EnsherYesterday, I was honored to become Loyola Marymount University’s 2017 recipient of the President Fritz B. Burns Teaching Award! Winning this award has been on my professional bucket wish list for a long time. I have tried before, several times in fact, and was unsuccessful previously, so being recognized this time around is extra sweet. Sometimes, persistence, right time, right place all comes together. I am basking in the glow of gratitude and the following essay is my teaching philosophy developed from my 20 years as a Professor.

Work is love made visible and if you cannot work with love, it is better that you sit at the foot of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy. – Kahil Gibran, The Prophet

One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began, though the voices around kept shouting their bad advice….. But little by little, as you left their voices behind…. There was a new voice which you slowly recognized as your own. – Mary Oliver, The Journey

Every semester, I begin my business classes with a poem that I think expresses the essence of the class and my hopes for the students. For example, for my core course, Managing People and Organizations, I begin with the Kahil Gibran poem about loving your work. I truly believe that excellent management is about loving your work and inspiring one’s employees to do the same. This course is required for all business majors so many of the incoming students are not exactly brimming with excitement the first day!

So, my mission is to connect immediately with the students and show them that management matters and can be a source of love and fulfilment. Likewise, for my class in Management Skills, which is required for Management majors, I begin with Mary Oliver’s poem as the main purpose of this class is to help students recognize their true passion and to do so by creating a comprehensive 20-page career action plan, connect with a mentor and deliver an individual Ted talk. All of these assignments push students out of their comfort zones tremendously and yet in the end, it is extremely gratifying to see students recognize their own voices as reflected in their papers and presentations. The main purpose of my teaching philosophy described below is to provide a foundation so that I can best engage, and connect with my students so they can become their best versions of themselves, academically, professionally, and even personally.

My teaching philosophy is influenced by the belief that my main purpose in teaching is to help students to be in the words of Saint Irenaeus of Lyons “fully alive” in their minds and spirits. I do this by striving to create a classroom environment that encourages engagement, excitement, and the love of learning. Every day I prep for class I ask myself, “If this was my last day on earth and this was my last class, what is the most important idea that I want my students to walk out of class with today?” Then, I create a structured learning plan that supports the main objective for the class session and I make sure that I have something, whether it is an exercise or an idea, that I am truly excited about sharing or trying. I am deeply connected to our LMU mission and Jesuit ideals as I am both an LMU alumna and a faculty member with 20 years of experience. Therefore, my teaching philosophy flows from three major tenets based on that mission of the encouragement of learning, the education of the whole person, the service of faith, and the promotion of justice. My three philosophical tenets are my own version of the proverbial “3 R’s” and they are: 1) Relevance, 2) Reach, and 3) Renewal.

Relevance can be described as an approach to designing pedagogy that directly addresses the question of ”Why is this important?” for students, managers, organizations, and society. Relevance must be balanced with appropriate rigor—this is accomplished by designing curriculum that is appropriately challenging and varied in its approach to testing students’ ability to apply and retain required knowledge. Reach refers to students applying class material to the greater community through engagement in field and service learning as well as in networking and developing mentoring relationships. Renewal is about my approach to continuous quality improvement in curriculum as well as my active engagement in my student’s work and in their lives.

1) Relevance

I make my courses relevant and rigorous in a variety of ways. For all of my courses, I include a learning objective and related exercises that help students reach clarity regarding their personal career goals. Then, in nearly every session, I address the question of why they should care about course material from a personal and business perspective. I believe that if students can apply course content to their own personal quest of determining how to live their best lives, then we breathe life into our mission of developing men and women in service of others.

The following is an example of one assignment that exemplifies relevance balanced with rigor. One of my most popular and painful assignment for my students is the compensation analysis assignment that students conduct in the core course, Managing People and Organizations. This assignment has several components. First, students are required to complete the Strong Assessment inventory which provides a personality profile and a list of jobs that are a match for their skills and interests. Next, they are required to conduct research and obtain data from published surveys and professional organizations regarding a reasonable salary for an entry-level job in a profession and industry of their choice. Finally, they are asked to create a budget for their own spending and expenses after college. The conclusion of this assignment is a series of reflection questions about the meaning of work, money, and practical next steps the student needs to take. Students have expressed a love-hate relationship with this assignment. They hate the painful dose of reality as most of them realize that their spending desires far exceed their expected salary and they feel disappointed. However, many students share that they love having their eyes opened for the first time and express gratitude for this wake-up call. This assignment is debriefed in class and linkages to trends in compensation and our current economic situation are integrated into the discussion. This kind of assignment infuses new meaning into the subsequent discussion on the minimum and living wage, executive pay, and employee benefits.

2) Reach

Our LMU mission encourages the service of faith and promotion of justice. At first glance, this part of our mission might be the most difficult aspect for a business student to understand and apply. After all, isn’t capitalism about maximizing shareholder returns and our entire system predicated on the separation of church and state? While this may be true, we live in interesting times where competing forces both compel and attract business students. In my courses, I focus on the rise of creative capitalism as touted by Bill Gates and bring in examples of best practice organizations that both make money and do good such as Tom’s shoes. We are seeing an increasing trend towards corporate social responsibility and as a tool for recruitment, retention, and development, particularly for millennials. I think our ability to inculcate the value of reaching out by serving faith and promoting justice will take our students and alumni to the forefront of exciting and hopeful trends such as these. I believe these values truly make our students unique and give them a strategic edge when seeking jobs and developing in their careers. One of the most effective ways I do instill the values of the service of faith and promotion of justice is through assignments that require students to reach out through community based learning. In fact, all of the courses that I teach have a field or service learning component.

For example, in my core course, Managing People and Organizations, all students are required to spend 15 hours in community-based learning and then write an individual analytical paper, a reflection paper, and present their experiences in a team presentation through the lens of a theory. Last semester one team presented their experiences in their respective organizations through the lens of Needs theory and actually had the class make sandwiches for the homeless as a way to demonstrate the importance of satisfying basic needs theory AND doing some good in the process. The students provided a living example of theory in practice and 30 homeless individuals were given a meal. One of the most satisfying experiences is when students reach out to clients and have continuity from one semester to the next. For example, last semester when I taught Managing People and Organizations, I had several students volunteer at Westside Playa Village. This is a community-based organization that enables seniors to stay in their home by connecting them with volunteers who can drive them to appointments, bring a meal to the home, or just provide a friendly game of Scrabble. Several of the students noted in their critical analysis that they felt they could have been more effective if they had been provided with a new volunteer training workshop. So, this semester, my “repeat customer” students currently enrolled in my elective course, Training and Development, have decided to address the need they discovered through their experiences last semester. In the Training and Development class, students work in teams all semester long with a client community based partner. Student teams complete a needs assessment using two forms of data collection and design and deliver a workshop for community-based partners. Some other community-based partners that my students have reached out and worked for include: Verbum Dei, Sunrise, St. Joseph’s school, Midnight Mission, Dolores Mission, and ArtSmart.

3) Renewal

Renewal is woven into my philosophy of teaching because it is about being ever mindful of our mission and bringing my whole self into teaching. I have developed several best practices related to renewal: 1) I integrate current events and resources related to our mission of social justice into my teaching and advising work with students; 2) I live my research by mentoring students and maintaining an active network of LMU friends, alumni, and other professional connections that I draw from to connect current students with past students; 3) I keep my own professional skills up-to-date through designing presentations for industry, executive education at other institutions such as UCLA and most recently online through a Tedx talk and Lynda.com. and 4) Role modeling a positive professional social media presence that provides visibility to our students.

In terms of living my research and networking, I have devoted 20 years of academic research to developing an expertise and niche in mentoring. In all of these years of teaching, my greatest contribution is not the 40 plus articles, one book, or even the training materials I have developed about mentoring. My greatest contribution is that I have taught my students how to engage in professional and personal renewal by forming mentoring relationships based on my book and ongoing research into mentoring. My students are required to obtain a mentor as part of my course in Management Skills and I focus on teaching them the importance of not just how to get a mentor but also how and why one can be a mentor to others. I spend a great deal of time an energy connecting my current students with past students. In fact, I like to joke that my part-time job is to run my own ad hoc employment agency for alumni.

I ask that my student’s push out of their own comfort zones and I try to walk the talk with this idea. I keep my own professional skills sharp. For example, since I teach Human Resources, Organizational Behavior, Training and Development, and Management Skills, I make sure I stay engaged in the professional field. In the past few years, I have conducted training workshops for managers in South Africa; for the U.S. Navy engineers, and for the Sisters of the Holy Cross. In this way, I can provide my students with current examples of material—experiences which all serve to increase my skills and credibility. This past year, I pushed myself out of my comfort zone by teaching an online class for Lynda.com on how to be a good mentor. This online class required me to develop and write 20 original scripts, and read them from a Teleprompter during a three-day intensive recording session. As a result, I now have a product that enables me to take a flipped classroom approach with my own students and enables me to reach a potential audience of two million subscribers. I am passionate about constantly renewing myself and staying relevant so I am extremely active in social media. I have written a blog about mentoring, media, and management for the past five years and share my thoughts on topics related to the courses I teach and I use it as a means to showcase student work as well. I am conscious of being a role model to our students and I work very hard to show by example what our mission means to me whether I am teaching, coaching one on one or posting on social media.

In conclusion, author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi suggested that the ideal goal of work is to experience flow which is defined as “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.” Teaching is my flow. The classroom is where I bring my best self and feel that it is where I feel “fully alive” and I am filled with gratitude to be doing work at LMU that has impact, meaning, and joy.


About Ellen Ensher

Ellen A. Ensher, Ph.D. is a Professor of Management at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California, USA. Dr. Ensher has an established expertise in mentoring programs and career advice, and is a frequent key note speaker and workshop leader for conferences and public and private organizations around the world. Google +
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