Every year, the Excellence in Teaching Award is given to professors and faculty in each of the four colleges of Pittsburg State.
This year, technology and workforce learning professor Mark Johnson was named the College of Technology’s recipient of the Excellence in Teaching Award.
“It’s obviously an honor to be chosen by your peers,” Johnson said. “I’ve had a great career at Pittsburg State and (I’m) very fortunate to win numerous students selected awards… (like) outstanding faculty member three times and outstanding faculty advisor and those kinds of things. But this one is selected by fellow faculty members and colleagues and they review what you’ve done and… they chose a member… that they think (is) worthy of the award. So, this is an honor to have my peers select me as having done good stuff for my students.”
Johnson has a unique way of educating in which he uses things like games and toys to explain real world concepts to his students.
“Well, one thing that I’ve learned over my 35 years at Pitt State is that if we want our students to really learn we can’t talk at them,” Johnson said. “We have to engage them; we have to make them part of the learning experience. So, I have developed a whole… bunch of tools and activities and things that I use in the classroom to make the students part of the learning experience and a lot of times they’re nontraditional things that people might not think of… I want the student to feel and think like the real-life situation. So, one example that works really well is in my HR class I talk about lots of things about teamwork, leadership, helping employees improve performance and things and with the teamwork one of best tools is the hula hoops that I bring to class. And they look at that and think, ‘Oh my, what’s he gonna have us do?’ But the hula hoop is where I divide them into groups of six or seven, put everybody around the outside of the hula hoop, they have to hold to hula hoop with their fingers and I’m gonna ask them to lower it to the follow but I tell them they can’t talk. They just have to lower it and if somebody takes their fingers off, they have to start over. Well, amazingly people struggle with that… and they kind of figure that out and they kind of communicate with each other without talking and all sorts of things. So, when we get through the hula hoop activity, we have a conversation about why it was so hard, and we talk about the four stages of teams: forming, storming, norming and performing. We’re diverse, we have different ideas, we have different ways that we act, some of us are assertive, some of us are introverts and extroverts, some of us are demanding, some of us don’t care. So.., those personalities come out (during the activity). Then when we’re all on the same page and we all know everybody’s strengths and know who’s the great communicate, she’s the patient and methodical one… and so on, we learn our strengths and we bring those together as a team and we function very well… That’s an activity type thing that I put them through to talk about teams and they can see it. They all get frustrated in the storming phase just like organizations do. They see when they start to realize the strengths of other people… I do the real life engagement activities with things from papers, to tooth paste, to magic carpets and hula hoops and Legos and whatever I bring to the classroom to teach a concept of real life but I do it metaphorically in a different, fun way that engages everybody in the room but then at the end we have a conversation and they get my point of what I was trying to teach the class.”
According to Johnson, building a connection with students is an essential part of teaching and one way to do that is to know them by name.
“Well, the thing that I’ve prided myself in is, and I think there are a few others that are starting to follow my example.., I know my students the first day of class before we walk out of that classroom, matter of fact in the first 15 minutes of class,” Johnson said. “So, whether I have 50 or 100 students, I know them all by name… I’ve probably taught 15,000 Pitt State students that technique of memory over the last several years… I fervently believe that if the student is going to pay attention to me and listen to me and want stick around for my class, they need to feel a certain trust. They need to feel that I am not just there talking at them, but I want to help them and the best way to do that is to know who they are. (It’s) pretty embarrassing (when) you’re sitting in class six weeks… (into the semester) and the professor is still going, ‘Hey, you,’ or ‘Your turn,’ instead of looking you straight in the eye and calling you by name. So, I work on that and I do that as part of my technique of connecting with the students from the very first get go. I always kid… that students… all show the second week just to see if I can remember their name and by that time, I’ve got them hooked and they stick with me for the rest of the class. But I do that intentionally because then when I go to engage them, if I’m calling you by name it is much easier for you to step up and get involved instead of, ‘hey, you, come here.’ …That’s kind of rude and not really inviting but if instead I do it in a conversational way and call on you by name, then you’re much more likely to be engaged in a conversation with me. So, that’s a thing that I have always worked on doing is knowing students in the room knowing them all by name. I’ve done that for most of my life…”
One of Johnson’s favorite things about being at Pitt State is the sense of family and unity that comes with being a Gorilla.
“Well, I’ve always said Pitt State’s family (is one of my favorite things about being at Pitt State),” Johnson said. “We have so many great teachers. That’s another reason it’s such an honor to get this award. It’s because you’re just one of many, you’re not the only one, you’re one of many great people that connect (with) and teach students and so that’s a cool thing, being in a place where we really think about the students and we really worry about our teaching and we help each other, we work with each other and that’s a great place to be… I’ve served on lots of committees, worked with a lot faculty from every college across the university and I get to work with them on a regular basis. So, I’ve enjoyed working, teaching, and being with my faculty and colleagues across the campus. The other thing that I love most about teaching is knowing that I get to make an impact every day. I have (been) given the fortunate responsibility of touching people’s lives and I know, through the techniques that I’ve learned and developed, I have confidence that at the end of the semester when my students leave my class, they are better for it. They’re better prepared for the workplace, they’re better prepared in seeing people from a different perspective and understanding why people do certain things, and they’re better at communicating their ideas in an effective way. It’s a game changer. I’ve had many students come back years later and say, ‘you know, I did an internship and they asked me to stand up before a board of directors and give a presentation and when I did, at the end of it, the CEO of the company was in the room and stood up and gave me a standing ovation and said ‘where did you learn to present like that? That was phenomenal.’ And they’d say, ‘Dr. Johnson’s class.’ Because I gave them the confidence to do what they needed to d. That’s the true pleasure of teaching is knowing when you’ve changed or improved somebody’s life. That’s a cool thing about teaching is that we get to do that every day.”
Johnson has been a professor for 35 years and is thankful that he continues to
“(I) just want to thank the university for the opportunity to continue to get to do what I love..,” Johnson said.