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How Teaching With Empathy and a Learner Mindset Helps This Professor Succeed

  • 4 MIN READ

Learn about Spartanburg Methodist College's Dr. Judy Mirick's teaching and learning journey.


For Dr. Judy Mirick, teaching came naturally. Brought up in a household where education was a continual focus, she started tutoring at an early age. Now, with almost 30 years of teaching behind her, Dr. Mirick is a professor of physics and physical science at Spartanburg Methodist College (SMC), where she’s been lecturing on physics, physical science and astronomy since August 2019.

As a small college in South Carolina, SMC affords Dr. Mirick a family atmosphere conducive to the kind of empathetic relationship-building that helps her connect with her students and empowers them to succeed on their own terms.

A D2L Champion, Dr. Mirick sat down with us to share her own educational journey, from empowering students to why she considers herself a storyteller and what she thinks about online and hybrid learning for students and educators.

Mission matters at SMC

We’re a small college—there are only about 1,000 students—but that’s never stopped us from being mission-driven. Even though we have a small faculty, it’s an advantage. I love the family atmosphere because you know everyone; I can talk to the provost or even the president.

We strive to help students who may not have had proper access to resources, such as finances, or the academic background necessary to complete higher education. The goal is to give students the opportunity to succeed elsewhere or to stay here to complete their studies. At SMC, there are several associate degrees, a Bachelor of Arts in Business Administration and a customizable Bachelor of Arts program with a professional development component that focuses on developing soft skills, which is unique compared with many other schools.

I love being able to empower students to the point that they truly believe they have what it takes to be successful.

Regardless of whether students stay or leave, it’s all about seeing the students reach their goals. I love being able to empower students to the point that they truly believe they have what it takes to be successful.

Educators need many skills to be successful teachers

These skills often go beyond subject matter expertise. It’s also about acknowledging what we don’t know as educators. I believe that as a teacher you have to be willing to say, “I don’t know.” You have to be able to admit that to your students—you can’t lie to them.

I also think you need to have empathy for your students to really connect with them. Having a learner mindset is great. I’m a huge advocate of continuous learning. You need to remember what it’s like to learn and the struggles that come with that, so you can understand what your students are going through.

Student success looks different for everyone

Success depends on a lot of things and is defined differently for everyone. Certainly noticing improvements over the term is one way to define it. If one of my students starts a course with a skill set at one level and by the end they’re at a higher level, that’s a success.

I also think student success is seeing certain capabilities being developed, such as critical thinking and/or time management. Sometimes in the classes I teach, I tell students, “I don’t care whether you remember all the details of what we talk about. I do want you to be able to know how to find answers.” Instead of rote memorization, I want students to understand what is going on and ask critical questions. I want them to understand the process of solving problems.

Instead of rote memorization, I want students to understand what is going on and ask critical questions.

Along with the idea of critical thinking and problem solving, it’s also important that students learn how to make connections to the real world. With physics, it’s important that students can take course information and synthesize it into something that they can apply outside the classroom.

My teaching style differs depending on the class

In my general education classes, I’m a storyteller. I conduct my lectures in a way where I intersperse stories and real-world examples. For my physics class, sometimes I’ll do a hybrid or flipped classroom. I base my style on the level and types of learners in the class—so it can change slightly from semester to semester.

With all my classes, I use a learning management system (LMS) to record my lessons. I did this even before the COVID-19 pandemic. I started recording snippets of material probably 15 to 20 years ago with Wacom tablets. I’ve always liked the idea of giving students videos that are four to five minutes in length that they can click through when studying. These videos are also great for students who’ve missed classes, so they can go back and see what was covered.

I love using an LMS, as it helps me keep all my content in one place and my students know where to go. They can always find answers in the same place every week and keep track of due dates.

D2L Brightspace has a lot of tools and functionalities that are powerful for instructors

In general, I love having a system where I can put content in front of a student. Within Brightspace, what particularly stands out to me is the integration with different tools such as Cengage WebAssign. I use this integration to download test banks, which I can then adjust and use for my students. Also, it automatically populates grades, which is extremely helpful when I have 60 students in a course. It gives me back time and takes off pressure.

I also use the Kaltura Classroom tool, which helps me record, upload, publish, and share videos in my course shell. I then use engagement metrics to see whether students have interacted with the content and how much of it they’ve watched or read. The Kaltura Classroom was a godsend when we had snow days during the term and school was canceled. I was able to conduct a live class from my home.

I always have goals with respect to my own teaching and learning practice

In my general education classes, I want to start integrating more discussion tools. I’ve seen them used well, but I’ve also seen them used not so well. My intention is to use discussions in a way that really engages students and allows them to do more group reflections. I already encourage individual reflections in my courses where I have students respond to a prompt. I use this to create a positive feedback loop in the sense that I get some information I can then respond to in class. Another reason I want to start implementing more discussions is that this can also help me get to know students who are quieter in class.

I didn’t really realize the capability of all the tools in D2L Brightspace before the pandemic. In the past, I would mostly use an LMS to post information; I never really used it to gather information from the students. But now I am seeing there’s so much more to learn and use in my classroom. I’m excited to see what the future brings.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

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