Deborah Polo receives the Distinguished Teaching Award at Convocation

Polo has taught at VCU since her undergrad days in the early 1980s, and has taught most introductory courses in the Department of Chemistry.
Debbie Polo and Catherine Ingrassia at Faculty Convocation

VCU held its 41st Annual Faculty Convocation honoring distinguished faculty award recipients on Wednesday, September 6 from 3 p.m. - 4 p.m. Among those honored was Deborah Polo, director of student learning outcomes and a teaching assistant professor from the Department of Chemistry. She received the Distinguished Teaching Award. We spoke to Debbie about career, how her teaching has changed over the years, and who inspired her to enter the profession. 

Q: How did you start teaching at VCU – and why VCU?
A: I began teaching at VCU as an undergraduate in 1983 when I was asked to be a recitation TA for a new introductory chemistry class (CHEM 100) and to TA for general chemistry labs. I continued as a TA while in graduate school at VCU. I actually didn't plan to teach, but my early experiences, especially in graduate school, made me fall in love with teaching. I seemed to connect well with students and had a knack for making the material more approachable for students. I was an adjunct instructor at VCU from 1988-1999 when I was offered a full-time teaching faculty position, and I’ve been here ever since.

I chose VCU over other opportunities because of the wonderfully diverse student population and the opportunity to collaborate with dedicated faculty.

Q: Do you have a particular teacher that really meant a lot to you/influenced you? Why?
A: My high school advanced chemistry teacher Anita Deligan was a big influence. I found the class difficult and frustrating. She never lowered her standards but motivated us and gave us the tools necessary to succeed. A good teacher should inspire their students and Ms. Deligan did just that. I decided to study chemistry as a direct result of that class. We have remained friends to this day.

In college, my research advisor was a huge influence. I started as an undergraduate research student with Lidia Vallarino when I was a junior. She always pushed me outside of my comfort zone and convinced me to go to graduate school. "Dr. V." as we affectionately called her, became my lifelong mentor and friend. She believed deeply in the value of education and was a passionate teacher.

Q: How have your teaching methods changed over the years?
A: Over the years I have moved away from just lecturing or "sage on the stage" type of teaching. Today I use much more active learning techniques and focus more on the process of learning than I did as a beginning teacher. It's well documented that students learn better when they participate in constructing their knowledge. I'm excited to be in the new STEM building with classrooms built for active learning.

Q: What is the most important thing you have learned about what makes an amazing teacher?
A: Excellent teachers should not only be able to convey content clearly to students, but must be able to motivate and inspire students to want to learn. Creating independent learners and critical thinkers should be goals.

Q: What was your reaction when you learned that you won the Distinguished Teaching Award?
A: I was blown away when I learned that I'd won the Distinguished Teaching Award! There are so many great teachers at VCU. I'm very humbled to receive this recognition for just doing what I love.

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