Center for Excellence Honoree: Cheryl Kerison

Cheryl KerrisonWhen Professor Cheryl Kerison tells the future teachers in her classroom that they must "create conditions for success," she isn't just repeating a familiar motto. It is something she tries to live every day.

Two years ago, when Kerison was a new professor of education at Quinnipiac, she was assigned as thesis adviser to 51 students.

Kerison is one of three faculty members to earn the Excellence in Teaching Award at Quinnipiac this year. She earned the respect of many students when she took on that awe-inspiring task. She and the other recipients were honored at a dinner in the Recreation Center on Oct. 19.

"My students mean so much to me...I get weepy when I talk about it," Kerison said. "They come from all over the country and mean the world to someone. They're gifts to me, and I feel I have a great responsibility to take care of someone's child."

Her graduate students were grateful for her efforts.

"She decided to take a risk and take on all of us," wrote student Robin Renzi in nominating Kerison for the excellence award. "She made it a priority that her students were getting the best education possible."

"No other professor would ever take on such a stressful and demanding position," said student Julie Tordella. "Late meetings, constant e-mails and phone calls, and a significant number of stressed-out grad students do not ever phase her...She believes in each of us in a way that no other professor has and this motivates us to succeed to an entirely higher level."

"I'm not sure if Professor K. actually sleeps or has any free time," wrote Amanda Szmalc in her letter of nomination.

Kerison grew up the oldest of six children, with a military sergeant dad and a mom who worked outside the home and made all the children's clothes. But despite being hectic, it was still a house filled with love and laughter. Kerison was always expected to help out with her younger siblings and told that when she does a job, she must do it well.

"I always respected how hard my parents worked, and I give them credit for making us all intrinsically motivated," she said. Her parents also taught her not to waste time and that is how she accomplishes so many tasks.

She is the kind of professor who will e-mail a student who misses a class and ask, "Where were you?" At the end of the semester she asks for candid feedback about what aspects of her course were successful and what needs revamping. She always tells her students they can call her any time, day or night-and sometimes they do.

"I never want them to be in a position where they feel they don't have an adult to go to if they have a problem," she said. "I figure they'll pay it back when they're teachers some day. It's how we pass the torch. If someone treats us kindly, we'll do the same."

Kerison earned her bachelors degree from the University of Puget Sound in elementary education, with a concentration in biology. She later earned a master's degree in administration and curriculum from Gonzaga University.

Kerison came to Connecticut in 1994, receiving a full scholarship from the University of Connecticut to complete her PhD in educational psychology. Kerison joined the Quinnipiac faculty two years ago, after devoting 23 years to teaching elementary and middle school students.

In their letters of nomination, several of Kerison's students said she had made them better people. She credits that, in part, to what they've learned in her "Diversity and Multiculturalism" course.

"It's a very powerful course. We talk about things that may make them uncomfortable, be it race, culture, sexuality," she said. "Diversity is more than a race issue. Take a child who is adopted. They're in a minority." By the end, students usually see that they belong to at least one minority group.

"At some point students realize they are responsible for social justice," she said. One of her students was student teaching in a suburban school. "Every school bus had a cute name, like the 'blue rainbow bus' or the 'sunshine bus.' But the bus that brought children from the city was called "The Project Choice bus."

"It upset her so much that those children didn't have a special name for their bus...that their bus was clearly the 'out of town' bus," Kerison said. "She was able to get the name of that bus changed. For my diversity students, their eyes begin to open to things around them."

Student Megan Monahan experienced that change.

"I firmly believe that she has not only shaped me as a new teacher, but as a person as well," Monahan wrote. Through Kerison's diversity course, she learned "not only how difficult life can be for different groups of people, but how easy mine has been. As a result of this course, I have become 'softer around the edges."'

"Becoming aware and understanding of what all types of students experience in a classroom-physical disabilities, racial differences, religious differences and learning-level differences, to name a few-helps to make me a better teacher and a better person," Tordella wrote in her nomination. "I strive to be the teacher she is-one who is understanding, passionate and intelligent."

In March, Kerison and five students spent spring break conducting teaching workshops in Nicaragua.

"I work to change my own life and bring it to the classroom. I can't just stagnate, I need to grow and develop as a person continually," Kerison said. "What a wonderful, life-changing experience it was for me."

She plans to return next spring. She said she couldn't have done it without the support of colleagues, the dean of the Division of Education and the Albert Schweitzer Institute.

Kerison said she does miss working with elementary and middle school students a bit. But as her daughter Kerith-a graduate teaching student at Quinnipiac--pointed out, she has made some lifelong friendships among her university students.

Several students noted that Kerison is a challenging teacher.

"She taught elementary school science," wrote Renzi, "and I never thought I would make it through her class alive. The amount of work that she wanted us to complete was monumental."

"My standards are very high," Kerison said. "One thing I tell my students is that I'm not just responsible for them. I multiply them by the 20 students they'll have in their classes. How dare I send you out there without the ability to teach. I don't let up. Your principal won't let you slide. The parents of your students expect your best.

"My courses are rigorous. I liken the teacher-preparation program to preparing to go on a trip. The destination is the classroom of your own.

"I tell them, 'Think about a vacation to the Bahamas. Would you complain if you had to go to the drug store and buy sunscreen? Or go to the mall and buy a new swimsuit or some cute flip flops? I bet not. Then why would you complain about the work you have to do in this classroom? Why complain about the preparation required to be in your own classroom with your own kids?"'

Kerison has two children and three grandchildren. She is an avid book collector, enjoys old movies, and loves to travel.

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