Instructor Spotlight: Meet Professor Joan Smeltzer

We are inspired by our Hawkes instructors and are eager to showcase their talent and compassion for their students. Recently, Victoria Kelly of the Customer Support Team chatted with Professor Joan Smeltzer of Penn State University-York Campus. Victoria is Professor Smeltzer’s dedicated Training and Support Representative and thoroughly enjoys their working relationship! We are excited to shine a spotlight on this instructor and her care for her students.

*This interview has been lightly edited for content and clarity.

How long have you been teaching?

This is my 25th year! I have been at Penn State-York Campus all these years, too!

What is your secret to teaching?

You have to evolve and update over time. You have to recognize the changes in the students you teach throughout the years. For example, when I first started teaching, my students were used to completing their homework on their own and not for a grade. Now, I recognize my students need the incentive of the homework being part of their overall grade. Of course, I want to be able to give them each individual feedback as I grade their homework. This is where online platforms like Hawkes Learning have really been so helpful! The students are able to receive immediate feedback and not have to wait on their grades or assignment reviews. It’s important for instructors to remain current as technology changes. It’s important to self-reflect and see how you can make the student’s experience better.

What is the most valuable lesson you have learned in teaching?

I think the most valuable lesson is learning that students change. There are benefits in recognizing where the students are—especially when they are in their very first semester as freshmen. When you have first semester students, you often feel you are reminding them and coaching a bit more than you usually would, but it’s so that they can learn responsibility as they adjust to college. I always try to step back and ask, “Where are they? What do they know? What do they need?” I try to step in and fill in the gaps where needed while still upholding and communicating my standards and expectations to the students. It’s a delicate balance and often a give and take scenario.

What would you say is the biggest challenge for students today?

I work with developmental students and college algebra students. Within my group of students, I think that resilience and accountability can be a struggle for some of them.

What would you say is the biggest challenge for teachers today?

On the college level, I would say work-life balance. We are a group of very high-achieving people! We are used to constantly pursing excellence; however, the past 6 (or so) months have been terribly difficult for faculty. You are used to having your pedagogy be the best it can be. During the pandemic, there has been so much shifting. It comes down to if your pedagogy is a good fit for right now, and that’s OK. So many of us have gotten into this trap of working 7 days a week to try to take care of the never-ending to-do list and make sure everything is the best it can be! I remember when students did not have emails, so they didn’t have 24/7 access to instructors. Nowadays students will email at all hours of the day. Instructors have had to make sure they communicate what hours they are available to students so that there is clear understanding.

Regarding your classroom structure, what setups and styles have you tried? What have you found worked best and maybe didn’t work out?

When I first started teaching, I was using the traditional lecture format with very little activity. I think I stuck with that model for a very long time. Eventually I adopted another publisher and tried to implement the emporium model for my classes. It didn’t really work well for us. My students were mainly commuter students, so many of them were very sensitive to making the best use of their time. They didn’t feel that coming into the classroom and working independently while I was available for questions was the best use of their time. They wanted me to stand at the chalkboard and teach. Now I mainly teach in a lecture format, but when time allows, I have the students break out into pairs to work on problems together. So, in a way, a combination of the two have worked best for me!

What would you say is your favorite thing about your college campus?

I was a student at my campus! I started my undergrad degree at Penn State. I spent my happiest years there! When I was pursuing my graduate degree in Math, all I wanted was to return to Penn State and teach. My instructors really inspired me. In particular, one of my teachers, Bruce Babcock, mentored me while I was in grad school. When I finished my graduate degree, he requested that I be given a course to teach. When I think about my first day as a scared undergrad and then realize that now I’m the Chair of our department, it’s a special feeling. I love the people here!

What is something special and unique that your students don’t know about you?

Not all of them know that my undergrad degree is in meteorology! I try to weave it into class as much as I can. For example, the other day we were discussing formulas, and I was excited to introduce Celsius and Fahrenheit during the lesson. Another thing they may not know is that when I came in as an undergrad, I had to complete developmental math classes. I did not place directly into the college level courses. They may not realize that math does not come naturally to me! I had to work as hard as they do for it, as well.

Do you have a favorite breakthrough moment you’ve experienced with a student?

There have been so many, but there is one student that comes to mind. There was an adult student who had a full-time job with many responsibilities. He was in my basic skills math course, so it was essentially an arithmetic course. The student was very involved in class. He asked questions, he would answer my questions in class, but when he submitted his test, it would look like complete gibberish. He came to every class and was doing everything correctly, but there was something not quite right. I pulled him aside and asked if he had ever been tested for a learning disability. He went home and told his mother, who informed him that he had a stroke when he was a baby. He never knew! He was able to receive proper testing, and he was given the help he needed. I think it’s important to always care about your students. I believe that the student was able to get the help he really needed due to the fact that I stepped in and showed empathy and concern.    

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