Major national teaching honour for Billy Strean

Bill Strean achieves a coveted 3M National Teaching Fellowship - and "cloud ten."

Scott Rollans - 2 March 2011

Billy Strean inhabits a modest office on the fourth floor of the Universiade Pavilion. But this month he moves into Canada's academic penthouse, as a recipient of a coveted 3M National Teaching Fellowship.

The Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education names a maximum of just ten 3M Fellows each year, nationwide. Strean is the first U of A Physical Education and Recreation instructor to receive the award in its 26-year history.

The implications have just started to sink in, says Strean, a specialist in sports psychology. "I talked with the guy who has coordinated the program for years, and is now the president of the society. He asked me, 'So, are you still on cloud nine?' I said, 'I'm on cloud ten!'"

When the university put Strean's name forward for the honour, they also asked him to prepare a 50-page nomination package. "It was a very large process, but also a very interesting one-to do that kind of reflection on my teaching," he says.

Strean summarizes his teaching philosophy with a little story. "When I meet people in social settings, and I tell people I'm a teacher, the standard question is, 'What do you teach?' I often say, 'Students.' My wife doesn't think that's funny. But, I actually think there's a difference between focusing on your content or your discipline versus being truly learner-centred." Strean pauses, looking a bit apologetic for using the term. "That's one of those phrases that gets hackneyed."

Clearly, though, to Strean "learner-centred" is more than a cliché. "By the time you get to university, you've learned that when you're in a classroom, you can get hurt," he explains. "Somebody can tell you you're wrong. You can be embarrassed; you can be humiliated. I believe that, unless we deal with that history, people are going to be intelligently careful about how they participate. So you need to foster a sense of trust, of getting to know each other, and setting some ground rules of what we will and will not do."

To build a connection with his students, Strean begins at the most basic level: learning their names. "That's a big way of grabbing people's attention," he says. "In a class of 36, within the first five minutes I'll know their names." Earlier in his career, when he often taught classes of 200, the task was a bit more daunting. "I used to take pictures of them in groups of ten, with their names in front of them. Then, I'd look at the photographs and spend time memorizing their names.

"It's really fun, because I'll go into the next class, and they think they're all nameless persons sitting in row 17. Then the professor turns and says, 'So, Rebecca, what do you think about that?'"

As excited as Strean is about his fellowship, he's even more thrilled about what comes with it. "It's not just, okay, here's your plaque." This coming November, the ten co-winners are treated to a four-day scholarly retreat at the Banff Springs Hotel. "Anybody I know who has done that has said it was life-changing."

As a 3M Fellow, Strean looks forward to contributing his own voice to the society's ongoing efforts to promote teaching in higher education. More than that, though, he looks forward to learning from his peers.

"The more one learns, the more one realizes the size of one's ignorance," Strean laughs. "It's that feeling of, 'Gee, I think I'm just starting to get this right.' There's always more to learn; there are always different ways to develop."

For example, Strean hopes to explore the generational differences that are transforming the entire realm of teaching and learning. "My nine-year-old is doing things, without batting an eye, that I didn't even think of doing until maybe the end of graduate school," he marvels.

That pace of change presents teachers with a daunting challenge, says Strean. "The whole idea of a lecture makes sense if you've got the only book in town. But, information-the kind that can be read in a textbook or on a website-is absolutely not a commodity anymore.
And, to the extent to which we treat it like that, we're shortchanging what's possible when you have a bunch of people who are alive and in a room together.

"There's a lot for me to continue to think about and learn, of how to incorporate technologies with human engagement, with the emotional and biological qualities of people and learning. It's not just an above-the-neck undertaking."

Perhaps one of Strean's students says it best:

"You are an inspiration to me. Each PERLS 420 class I attend I leave with a new and different outlook on my life that I didn't have previously. Your love for life and teaching is so motivating and helps keep me focused and energized about my life, and my education degree. Next semester I will be doing my APT and I know I will be implementing things that you have taught me into my classroom. Lastly, I wanted to say thank you for taking the time to get to know me. Plain and simple. It means the world to me."

More about 3M National Teaching Fellowships