After 22 years of working with thousands of students, Jennifer Irwin’s personal formula for teaching really isn’t a formula at all.
“Give a damn. Truly, truly give a damn. It matters; it really matters and it’s important that students know we care because students are why we’re here,” she said.
“In my career, I’m not going to find a cure for cancer. But my students, maybe one of them is that smart and maybe one encouraging word from someone who cares is enough to convince them to keep going and keep persevering.”
In recognition – and celebration – of that belief, the Health Studies professor has been named one of Ontario’s most outstanding university teachers by the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA). She is one of just four honorees this year.
Irwin’s work focuses on obesity prevention and treatment, motivational interviewing, exercise and life-coaching for health-related behavioural change.
Her first teaching assignment two decades ago was as tutorial supervisor in a super-class of 1,300 Health Studies/Kinesiology students. But whether in large classes or smaller ones, her guiding principle is the same. “I want to genuinely connect with them in a meaningful way.”
She believes, to paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt, students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.
“For me, a foundation of respect is key. Treating my students with kindness – and that doesn’t mean being a mat they can walk over – means being fair and respecting everyone’s way of being in the world. I know it sounds kind of ‘woohoo,’” she said with a self-deprecating chuckle, “but if it’s genuine, people feel it.”
Several years ago, motivated first by someone’s unkindness and then surprised by a stranger’s gratitude for her own small act of generosity in a grocery store, Irwin spoke with her Health Promotion class of 350 students about how they might have a positive, contagious impact on others.
The students collectively decided on random acts of kindness – they called it the Butterfly Effect: A Legacy of Kindness and tagged it #kindtagious – and set out to change their corner of the world. Some handed thank-you cards to bus drivers; others gave sticky notes with hand-written compliments or served up hot chocolate for people waiting in the cold for a bus.
Although Irwin is on sabbatical this year and not teaching – instead, she is shepherding several doctoral students and supervising and/or helping write several research papers – the random acts of kindness have since morphed into an official student club, also called The Butterfly Effect.
Kindness, Irwin said, makes a difference in teaching, learning and just being human.
“I love it as a teaching tool. I love it as a way of being in the world,” Irwin said. “The things that bring us closer together and reinforce our humanity are important and potent.”
During the past two decades, Irwin has taught more than 5,000 undergraduate students through 31 course offerings and taught almost 100 graduate students through 11 courses.
One new research project includes studying how kindness affects mood, anxiety and resilience.
She is also a certified life coach who teaches health-care providers how to use life-coaching tools in their work and lives.
It’s not the first time she has been honoured for her impact: Irwin has also been recipient of Western’s Leadership in Wellness Award (2017); the Edward G. Pleva Award for Excellence in Teaching (2015); Faculty of Health Sciences Teaching Award of Excellence (2014); and an Award of Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching: Western University Alumni Association and the University Students’ Council (2013).
The OCUFA award was announced Tuesday.
“Jen’s passion for teaching and learning and her tenacity to ensure that each and every one of her students experience a vibrant and kind learning environment is without par,” said Dan Belliveau, a Health Studies professor and Irwin’s colleague, who nominated her for the award.
He said Irwin’s teaching philosophy aims to find creative ways to invite students into finding their own passion about health and health promotion and, “Jen does this from a lens of kindness and compassion.”
“Jennifer Irwin is gripped by a passion for health promotion and a belief that kindness and compassion function not only as learning goals, but are vital to the very process of learning,” said Judy Bornais, Chair of OCUFA’s Award Committee.
Bornais said Irwin “has elevated this core message of kindness” into an effective tool for active teaching and engaged learning.
The other recipients of a 2018-2019 OCUFA Teaching Award include:
- Sue Baptiste, Professor Emerita in the School of Rehabilitation Science at McMaster University;
- Daniel Gillis, Associate Professor in the School of Computing Science at the University of Guelph; and
- Andrew Petersen, Associate Professor, Teaching Stream in the Department of Mathematical and Computational Sciences at the University of Toronto Mississauga.
Honorees will be feted at a ceremony in Toronto on Oct. 19.
OCUFA President Rahul Sapra said in a statement that faculty are at the heart of Ontario’s vibrant universities. “Through their hard work and boundless energy, they inspire students to embrace new ideas and build a brighter future.”