June Francis wins 2014 TD Canada Trust Distinguished Teaching Award

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“I’m feeling excited of course,” said June Francis, one of the two 2014 TD Canada Trust Distinguished Teaching Award recipients. “I know that Beedie has a lot of strong teachers so it is an honour,” she said. “If the award means I’ve had a positive and enduring impact then I’m grateful for the award.”

Francis was hired as an Assistant Professor in 1989 and has been an Associate Professor of Marketing at the Beedie School of Business since 2001. While her teaching style challenges students to leave their comfort zone, Francis gains their trust and respect along the way. She was a nominee of this award in 2012 and has always been a teacher who is dedicated to having a lasting impact.

“I’ve always wanted to be a great teacher,” said Francis. “The award is one thing, but what’s important is if I have contributed to students’ lives through teaching.” There are a couple of unique things about her teaching style. “I am in fact a storyteller,” she explained. “I tend to find ways of connecting the ideas I want them to take away with something memorable.” She also pushes her students through direct questions and helping them think beyond the obvious answers. “I attempt to understand students and push them beyond their comfort level.” She explained that she gets to know them through questions and challenges, sometimes spending time with one student until they think through her line of questioning to reach the end goal of discovering the desired answer.

This technique requires a great deal of trust between teacher and student. “You have to create a safe environment,” she explained, “they need to feel that they won’t be ridiculed.” Francis gains their trust in a variety of ways: “Some students are not quick to talk, so I give them time. I also don’t demean students. I find brilliance in their answers – there is always that gem of brilliance.” The point is not to put them on the spot, but to get them to come up with the answer themselves, and this can be very effective.

Francis enjoys teaching because of the energy she gets from her students. “I really love students because their minds are open; they’re really looking at the world with fresh eyes,” she said. “That openness and flexibility is exciting. I feel privileged to teach them before they become jaded,” she laughed.

It isn’t hard to remain motivated and enthusiastic when teaching diverse groups of students in different programs. Last spring, Francis taught in the Executive MBA in Aboriginal Leadership, and she found it to be a very rewarding experience. “I wasn’t sure who learned more; they taught me so much,” she said. “Likewise in the undergraduate program – the students come from all over the world from different backgrounds, cultures, and ages,” said Francis. “Their diversity enriches the class and the dynamics of the class are all because of the students. I’m there to facilitate and help them learn.”

Francis believes in keeping herself relevant to her students by understanding their different cultures, backgrounds, languages, and individual strengths. “When you recognize their individuality they really respond to you,” she said. When she taught in the EMBA in Aboriginal Leadership she did a course on aboriginal worldview to understand the historical context the students were coming from. The fact that she’s travelled to China and done some Chinese language studies also allows her to better relate to her Chinese students.

With experience teaching in France, the Czech Republic, and China, Francis explained that every university has slightly different expectations, but that she always enjoys coming home. “I’ve always come back to Beedie feeling that we have some of the brightest, most committed students in the world,” she said. This rich learning environment is also due Beedie’s faculty members. “We have good teachers; Beedie takes pride in teaching and the students expect a high level of performance,” said Francis.

Over the course of her career, Francis said her perspective on teaching has changed in a few ways. “I’ve come to recognize that the process is what matters,” she said. “I don’t worry about cramming facts into their heads.” She also looks at classroom dynamics in a different way, realizing that the students are really in charge. “You tend to think it’s about you, but you realize it’s not,” she explained.

Francis recently went back to school and completed a law degree at BPP University College in London. This experience as a student added to her shift in perspective. Sitting through all kinds of lectures and tutorials she got to see things from the other side. “I learned an awful lot about what differentiates a good professor from a weak one. A good professor is interested in me discovering the material myself and facilitating that; a bad professor is just shoving information at me.”

She also noticed that there is always a power imbalance between the two roles. “As a student I became the one who was going to be judged,” she explained, and this affected the way she graded, considering what effect the marks and feedback would have on the long-term success of the student. “As a professor I became much more humble in that role of judge,” she said.

As more and more information is readily available to us at all times, Francis feels that the role of a professor is evolving. “We need to shift our roles to facilitate and help our students critically analyze material,” she said. “We need to engender creativity and get them looking beyond the obvious.” It not only the information that’s important, but the learning process.

Francis said she gets a lot of emails from former students saying things like, “I know it was tough, I know you pushed me, but I appreciate it.” This shows her that it’s all worth it. “I realize that it was really helpful,” she said, “I hope I have changed them in some way.”