June 14, 2009

Professors Who Make A Difference: Dr. Kateryna Schray

I knew immediately that I was going to like Dr. Kateryna Schray.

The opening week of classes is, generally, a busy period filled with uncertainty and mild confusion. The Spring 2009 semester was no different; students were fighting January's cold and bitter elements to make it to class, while professors were struggling to match names to the new students occupying chairs in the classroom.

The week can be something of a blur.

It was during that first week that Dr. Schray telephoned our office, and asked to talk in more detail about a student she would be teaching in her course on Chaucer. The student (called "Jay" here) recently attended his first class with Dr. Schray, and the professor had questions about how best to provide him instruction. After talking briefly by telephone, Dr. Schray asked to meet with us in person for more detail. We offered to meet her in her office. Instead, she replied: "I'll come to you."

And she did.

She made the trip across campus and talked with us ( "us" meaning Jay as well) for 90 minutes about several topics: Jay's interest in history and culture, Dr. Schray's Ukrainian-Latvian heritage, Asperger's Disorder, Chaucer, the class structure and requirements, etc. The conversation was magical, and a bond was formed between Jay and Dr. Schray that was obvious to all in the room.

"I'll come to you."



In her own words, Dr. Schray speaks of her experience:

"Walking into the classroom is by far the most exciting part of my workday. I am deeply grateful for my students, and very proud of their achievements. I grew up in Philadelphia, PA, in a Ukrainian-speaking household (my heritage is Ukrainian-Latvian). I received my BA in German from La Salle University in 1987, MA in English from Georgetown University in 1989, and Ph.D. in English from UNC-Chapel Hill in 1997. I joined Marshall’s faculty in 1996 and teach courses in medieval literature and in the Honors program; I also serve as a Writing Mentor for the Yeager program. I genuinely look forward to every class session and cannot imagine a more rewarding career. I hope that I will never take my calling for granted. My husband Jim and I have four wonderful children: Tesia (age 8), Perin (age 7), Blaise (age 5) and Simeon (age 3).

My teaching philosophy is embarrassingly simple: provide students with a supportive learning environment, identify and build on their strengths, and make each person an active participant in his/her own education. All of us share a natural desire to learn, whether we are toddlers examining a remote control or astronauts exploring space. The success of my courses depends directly on each student recognizing that he/she is an indispensable part of every class session. In a very real sense, we’re all in this together. If I ever doubted that, it was reaffirmed for me this semester in my Chaucer class, a course I have taught many times.

On the first day of class, my student Jay arrived quite noisily with a large pilot case and a second piece of luggage crammed full of papers and immediately announced himself to the class. My first thought was that he was running late and hadn’t quite gotten a chance to move into his dorm yet, but the volley of questions and comments that followed quickly put that theory to rest. I was wholly unprepared for anything but the routine first day of Chaucer class and it took me about 10 minutes to fully realize that Jay’s persistent questions weren’t intended to heckle me or derail the class plan. This first day is generally a fun session with me offering what I think is an entertaining overview of Chaucer’s life and a cursory introduction into the medieval worldview. Instead, I felt like I was treading water for 75 minutes, thinking on my feet, frantically trying to balance the needs of everyone in the class. I hadn’t worked so hard in a classroom . . . ever. Class-time is usually the payoff for a whole lot of prep and is easily the best part of my workday. Needless to say, Jay, the rest of the class, and I all made it through that first day, and it took me several weeks to recognize the various emotions I had that day as a college professor. To make it more interesting, I found out shortly after the semester began that I was a finalist for Marshall’s Reynolds Teaching Award and that my Chaucer class would be observed by a selection committee of twelve people from across the campus.

Oddly enough, Jay could not have arrived in my classroom at a better time: I’m in a professionally transitional phase right now. I joined Marshall’s faculty as a single 30-year-old out of grad school; today I’ve been married eleven years and have four young children. “Hip” went from being an adjective to describe my teaching to a noun identifying where it hurts. And now, as I have gotten settled in my ways and finally think I know what I’m doing, along comes someone who pretty much forces me to question my course goals, reassess my pedagogical strategies, and revisit successful assignments. Those first few days of the semester, I could not take anything for granted. And, I’m happy to say, it made me a better teacher.

The folks at Marshall’s Autism Training Center were immediately helpful, forwarding links to on-line videos that helped me begin to understand what Asperger Syndrome was, putting me in touch with Jay’s academic mentor, and setting up a meeting time as soon as our schedules allowed. In the meantime I had a great advantage: a friend of mine, a woman I love and greatly admire, has a young son with Autism – she is quite emphatic that he has Autism as opposed to he is autistic – and it was easy for me to think of Jay as that sweet little kid 15 years down the line. Beyond that, my goal is to respond to every student with joy, never apprehension. My first meeting with Jay and the Autism support team was one of the most productive conversations I’ve ever had, yet for one of the few times in my teaching career I felt entirely clueless and vulnerable. In short, what looked like a major challenge on the first day of class turned out to be an invitation to become a better teacher and hopefully a better person, an invitation to become good at something new.

While this blog is generously titled “Professors Who Make a Difference,” my experience this past spring reminds me that our students make the real difference, both the students who surprise us with challenges and the students who help us rise to meet those challenges. Jay gave my students something that I couldn’t: a chance to walk on common ground rather than worry about the differences. The best moment of class for me was probably one of Jay’s worst, but here it is: Jay had gotten caught in the rain earlier in the semester and was anxious about the weather. He kept asking if he could leave because he was afraid it might rain. I glanced out the window: the sky looked clear, in fact it was beautiful day. A few minutes later Jay crossed the room to see if clouds were gathering. And then something nice happened. Since Jay was only comfortable in his usual seat by the door, one of his classmates on the window side of the room gently offered to let him know if it looked like the weather might change. After some further pacing, another student reassured him that rain wasn’t in the day’s forecast. A third promised him a ride to his dorm if, in fact, it did start raining. All of these things were said sincerely and matter-of-fact, interwoven into our discussion of Chaucer’s “Clerk’s Tale,” a story about a local ruler who abuses his power over the disenfranchised. After class I sent a quick email thanking one of the students who reassured Jay and her response was simple and beautiful: “I know it's never a good feeling when you think that you might get caught in a storm.” Her response is beautiful because it doesn’t at all talk about Jay as someone who is different, but in fact the opposite: she identifies with his fears and responds with kindness. Some form of commonality occurred on a weekly basis: one student emailed me an answer to an obscure question Jay asked so that I could forward it to him (and believe me, Jay can come up with some pretty obscure questions); another student helped Jay gather up his papers when one of his suitcases spilled.

Spring 2009 has been an amazing semester, one of the most challenging and yet easily one of the best of my teaching career. Looking back, in a very real sense it was a perfect class, built around Geoffrey Chaucer’s famous fourteenth-century work The Canterbury Tales. After all, what is the Canterbury Tales but a collection of stories told by diverse and sundry folks who come together for a common purpose and in the process reveal their passions, strengths, idiosyncrasies, obsessions, and imperfections? I could not have asked for a better class or a better semester."

As one might expect, Dr. Schray did indeed win the Reynolds Award for Outstanding Teaching at Marshall University. Read more about her at this link.