Anthony Arnone | August 30, 2021

Presidential Teaching Excellence Award Winners

The 2021 Presidential Teaching Excellence Award winners share their words of wisdom, teaching techniques, and sources of inspiration.
President Macpherson (left), Melissa DiMarco (center) Jamie Spiller (right)

The annual Presidential Teaching Excellence Award recognizes five faculty members for exceptional teaching — with some help from those doing the learning. The winners receive a plaque and $500 stipend toward professional development for the upcoming academic year. This year, 331 students submitted faculty nominations to the president’s office.

The winners are Mustafa Canbolat, assistant professor, Department of Business Administration; Joseph Chesebro, professor, Department of Communication; Melissa DiMarco, lecturer, Department of Mathematics; Michel Pelletier, associate professor and chair of the Department of Biology; and Kevin Tate, assistant professor of Counselor Education.

Get to know them:

Knowing that your students nominated you for a Presidential Teaching Excellence Award, what does this recognition mean to you?

Canbolat: It means a lot! I feel both honored and privileged. Students may think we lose our passion and enthusiasm after teaching the same subject multiple times. However, most of us get butterflies in our stomachs in our first lecture every year! When students not only recognize you but also take the extra step to nominate you for what you do, it gives a sense of assurance and confidence that you are there for their success.

Chesebro: Even if I hadn’t won, it was rewarding to just see the students’ nomination letters. It was a unique year, teaching with masks on while being distanced, and it wasn’t always easy to tell if I was “getting through” to my students.

DiMarco: I just finished my fourth year teaching at Brockport, which means that the graduating class of 2021 and I started at the same time. We navigated the Brockport community together, learned remotely together, and then returned to the classroom together. I’ve come to know these students and appreciate who they are. These past few years have been completely out of the ordinary and the students have shown remarkable resilience in their ability to adapt. I am so very thankful that I had the opportunity to support and guide them.

Pelletier: It means everything. I know it sounds cliché, but the students are the people I work for. Yes, it is nice to receive positive feedback from peers but, ultimately, if I do not reach students and make a small difference in their life, then what is the point?

Tate: I love teaching and take my role as a counselor educator very seriously, so it was such a wonderful gift to receive from the students I have worked with. This is the first time I won the award, but I have been nominated by students in past semesters and those nominations mean as much to me as the ones that supported the award this year.

Who and/or what inspired you to pursue a career in higher education?

Canbolat: When I was completing my master’s, my initial goal was to graduate and find an engineering position in a company. But after presenting some findings in my master’s thesis at a research conference and providing tutorial sessions as a teaching assistant for a couple of courses, I decided that my heart is in higher education.

Chesebro: First, as an alum, Dr. Ireland from the Department of History was an amazing teacher and made it look fun. His early encouragement and the example he set were huge. Beyond his influence, I enjoy helping people and thought I would enjoy working in a college environment. I also liked the idea that there would never be a set routine. Finally, when I had my first teaching experience as a teaching assistant in grad school I loved it and knew it was the right fit for me. I’m happy to say that, after 20+ years, it’s still incredibly rewarding to work with students.

DiMarco: Math. I absolutely love doing math! I think it’s amazing that I have a job where I talk about math for an hour and the students are actually paying to listen to me. I actually get paid to talk about math. I know I keep repeating myself, but I’m still amazed that I have this wonderful gig.

Pelletier: I had great high school and college teachers who made a difference in what I am today. Initially, I wanted to pursue a career exclusively doing research but after I had the opportunity to teach as a graduate student, and then as a post-doc, I realized that teaching was my true passion.

Tate: After discovering the counseling master’s program at my university, I decided to pursue a career as a mental health counselor. At the outset of the program, I was offered a fellowship to pursue a PhD in Counselor Education, which turned out to be something I genuinely love. At the same time, during my graduate studies, I did a counseling internship at our university’s career center as a career counselor. Over the past 12 years, I have worked in both student affairs and academic faculty roles, and have pursued both of these pathways along the way.

How would you describe your approach to teaching?

Canbolat: Beneficial, not boring, to the point, and practical.

Chesebro: I make an effort to establish rapport with students and let them see that I care about them, so the classroom environment is conducive to learning. Then, I try to balance fun and substance – to enable students to enjoy learning while accomplishing something meaningful.

DiMarco: I love it when the class is interactive. The students should feel secure enough in the class to ask questions, answer questions, and have a real discussion on the material. It is not about me – it is about the students and I want to hear what they have to say.

Pelletier: I always remember that students are here to learn and pursue what they like. It is normal that they do not know everything, so I am never condescending to them; I was there once. I like to share stories in order to convey the material and try to relate the concepts I teach to what they know.

Tate: I believe that deep learning (learning that “sticks”) happens when students are invested and motivated personally and professionally in what is being learned. This means that I have to teach the particular students in each particular class, adapting the goals and materials for the class to these students. Of course, there are general concepts and outcomes that are expected across semesters for any given class, but as a counselor educator, I believe that human beings are motivated to work hard and learn when they can see themselves and their goals in the abstract concepts being covered.

What words of wisdom do you have for the freshman class of 2024?

Canbolat: You are here to explore. You may find some courses boring, uninteresting, or not relevant, but they are the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle you are building throughout your studies. You will see how beautiful the end picture is when it is completed.

Chesebro: Approach school with a curious mindset, in terms of being open to new ideas, perspectives, and experiences. Just do your best each day to work towards your potential and chip away at whatever you’re trying to accomplish. Success happens because those small decisions we make each day add up over time to something much bigger. Also, realize the difference between a degree and an education, and try to use this opportunity to grow as a person.

DiMarco: You should find yourself and figure out what kind of person you want to be. Do something you care about; learn a new skill or hone an old one. Join a group of people who also care. Don’t worry about what others think about you. If you need help ever, ask. Invest in yourself. You are worth it!

Pelletier: Pursue your passions. What you will learn in the next four years will define the rest of your life. Enroll in the major that you want to pursue, not what your parents/friends think you should be studying. Remember that you will be working in that field for the next 40+ years, so make sure you pursue a career where you will be happy to get up in the morning and go to work.

Tate: Embrace the unique situation you have been going through, and will be going through over the next few years. Your college experience is going to be very different from those who came before you. For graduate students starting their first year at Brockport, while you have already been through one “round” of college, give yourself some time to adjust to this new experience. Especially if you are working, have family commitments, or other “life stuff” that requires your care and work outside of school. Also, be sure to connect with your peers and build community with them if you can. This can be much harder to do in grad school and sometimes requires more planning.

What is your current research interest?

Canbolat: My PhD dissertation was about optimizing facility location decisions. Although I still do research in that subject area, my interests recently shifted more towards business analytics and behavioral operations management.

Chesebro: I’m working on a book about the value of making others feel understood in various communication situations – when meeting others, trying to persuade them, trying to support them, when handling conflict situations, etc. I’ve been able to do some great interviews, such as with Gary Noesner, the former head of the FBI Hostage Negotiation unit, and Daryl Davis, who through conversation alone has helped talk 200+ people into quitting the KKK and giving him their robes.

DiMarco: Homological algebra and representation theory of finite-dimensional K-algebras.

Pelletier: I study phospholipid biosynthesis in the parasite Trypanosoma brucei. This microscopic organism is responsible for a disease known as African Sleeping Sickness.

Tate: I am interested in the idea of “belonging” on a college campus and how that feeling impacts academic, career, and personal outcomes for students.

What continues to excite you about teaching?

Canbolat: Seeing new faces every semester who are eager to learn. The only problem is that the faces we see are staying at the same age but we are getting older!

Chesebro: Connecting with students and seeing them realize their potential is priceless. They continue to be the best part of the job. There is always room to grow, so I enjoy trying new things that are at the edge of my comfort zone.

DiMarco: I get so excited to design and teach a new class. Last year I taught Algebraic Topology and it was so much fun. One day, we colored a CW complex and I called us artists. Then my students brought in a life-size Bob Ross cutout. It was the best day.

Pelletier: Meeting new students every year, and making a difference in their life. Also, biology is a constantly evolving science, so there is always something new to learn and teach.

Tate: My favorite part about teaching is creating an environment where students can move away from trying to “be right” all the time, and into a space where the process of asking important questions becomes more important than getting the right answer on a test or assignment. Ralph Nader quoted his dad, who used to ask him after school, “Well, Ralph, what did you learn in school today? Did you learn how to think or did you learn how to believe?” This is what excites me about teaching – “lighting a fire” of critical thought.