Ashley Manor stands just outside the door of Graham Hall 336, facing a line of her classmates.
Each must answer her question before walking into the classroom. “If you could go back and talk to your 16-year-old self,” Manor asks again and again, “what would you say?”
For most of her respondents, that journey through time is not a long one. They’re college undergraduates, after all, barely removed from their teenage years. For Professor Daryl Dugas, who also must offer a reply to gain admission to his own classroom, the well of wisdom from which to draw is at least a couple decades deeper.
Dugas begins each semester on the other side of this brief inquisition, posing questions to his students as they queue up in the hallway, backpacks still slung over their shoulders.
He considers the greeting process integral to the “holistic learning” process, regarding his question-and-answer ritual as an invitation to enter an educational space known as Dugas Island.
“My philosophy of teaching is that it’s not just about delivering content. I’m creating an environment,” says Dugas, who teaches in the Department of Leadership, Educational Psychology and Foundations.
“To really learn, you have to expose yourself, and that’s a really vulnerable activity. My students and I are building relationships together to support them through challenges. It’s very enriching,” he adds. “The underlying model of what I’m doing is a process based on principles of group dynamics. We’re not just a group of individuals. We are a group together. We are in a process together. We are growing together.”
When students arrive for the first day of the semester, they find the classroom door closed and locked. Dugas eventually appears with the “key” – a question they must answer in order to enter.
“I might say, ‘What’s something, other than education, that you’re passionate about?’ The questions evolve over the next few days,” he says. “I’ve had students tell me, ‘I thought you were crazy on the first day,’ or ‘I didn’t know what to make of you on the first day.’ ”
But through their answers, he says, he can get to know them better. He can watch momentary anxiety at the door unlock positive learning experiences on Dugas Island, to which they have “a temporary resident agreement.”
Students such as Manor, a junior Special Education major from Mokena, volunteer to serve as the greeters as the semester progresses.
That’s by design, Dugas says. “Within the ritual, something was getting lost when I always did it. There needs to be the ritual, but it needs to change as well,” he says.
An in-class brainstorming exercise years earlier – something integral to Dugas Island – provided a strategy. “A student asked me, ‘Why don’t we ask you a question?’ I said, ‘That’s a phenomenal idea. This is your class, too, not just mine.’ Students really feel a sense of ownership.”
Dugas, an assistant professor in the Educational Psychology program, teaches classes in child and adolescent development as well as classroom management.
His goal is to instill in students that effective teaching-and-learning relationships must go beyond lecture, PowerPoint, note-taking and tests. He strives to elevate his curriculum in ways that prompt students to draw connections between the classroom and their lives.
“The point of my class is to stop thinking of your future students as merely students but as developing human beings,” he says. “A major problem with our educational system is that it deals mostly with curriculum content and forgets about the young people we are supposed to be nurturing toward adulthood.”
His path to this realization began in his previous career as a high school chemistry and physics teacher; he taught for six years in suburban Downers Grove and four years in a Chicago charter school.
Plagued by misgivings of his own efficacy with the teens, and whether he was teaching them things they actually would need to know as adults, his life changed when he discovered a mentor: a social worker steeped in the philosophy of group dynamics.
Through work with his mentor, he began asking himself questions about his own personal development: Am I an adult? Am I a man? He also jumped at the chance to help his mentor lead an after-school program for teens.
When he began incorporating those experiences into his chemistry classes – for example, he would spend the first two weeks of class not teaching content but instead establishing the learning environment – he earned a scolding from the principal.
Content, he was told, took precedence. That was his job.
“I feel like now I’m trying to deliver a counter-message to that: The most important thing is your relationship with students, not your content,” he says. “We shouldn’t pretend that all of our content is useful and that you’ll need it; rather, we should focus more on building connections with our students, and through that share them with them our own excitement about our content.”
As a teacher-educator, Dugas believes it’s vital to foster in his classrooms the kind of environment he encourages future teachers to cultivate in their own classes.
He shows his NIU students that content delivery is enhanced by prompting a sharing of personal stories, from both students and teacher, that relate to the lessons.
Such conversations lead to “feeling connected, a very valuable experience to have with one another.”
“Everyone who wants to be a teacher wants to make a difference in students’ lives, and very few people talk explicitly about how to do that,” Dugas says. “I’m trying to demonstrate to my students that it is possible to create a unique, connective experience in their classes, but that it requires hard work.”
The benefits, he says, go beyond just having a pleasant time. “Through our work as a group, future teachers can begin to examine their own blind spots,” he says. “You can’t guide someone through a developmental process you haven’t been through yourself.”
His students also gain experience in pushing themselves outside of their comfort zones in how they participate and share in class. “Doing this in my class helps them build empathy for their own future students,” he says, “and how difficult this can be.”
Young people will respond, he says.
“Research on resilience shows that adolescents need adults other than their parents to look up to, an adult who’s in their corner – one caring, competent adult who took an interest in their life,” he says. “When I began working with my mentor, I realized that I needed to have something to share with my students other than chemistry. I needed a caring ear and words of wisdom. Once I began sharing that, it meant the world to them.”
His classroom at NIU illustrates his spirit and his philosophy. Stuffed animals, including an owl, a gorilla, a “Where the Wild Things Are” creature, Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, as well as various tchotchkes, are stationed on desks throughout.
Meanwhile, he hopes to embody the teacher that he wants his students to become rather than lecturing them on how to do what he does.
For his part, he prompted them to set individual goals of how many times they would speak up during the next hour and how many times they would actively encourage others to share ideas. “Remind me to stop two minutes early so we can check in on that,” he told them.
Students broke into five groups to articulate their understanding of the idea of emotions as biological programs, cultural scripts and cognitive assessments; later, each group shared its thinking and opened the floor to comments.
As students shared their own personal stories and examples, Dugas also joined in to spin anecdotes about his young daughter that fit the discussion perfectly. It provided a good model: “The emotional responses you show will teach your students,” he told the class.
The students later played a game – one facilitated and modeled by a fellow classmate – that offered another example of how to connect students and teacher beyond academic content.
When the class ended, Dugas did not call out reminders of upcoming assignments or tests as might seem customary when students are packing up and heading for the exits.
“Thank you, as always,” he said, instead, “for a great conversation.”