Energy, enthusiasm, engagement: Prof. Heckman’s recipe for excellence
This year’s winner of both the University-wide Olive Beatrice Stanton Teaching Award for Excellence in Teaching and the Robson Hall-specific Barney Sneiderman Award for Teaching Excellence, Gerald joins a growing list of Faculty of Law professors to win teaching awards over the past few years.
We talked to Gerald about how teaching at Robson Hall allows him (and his students) to excel.
“For me, the key is remembering the overall goal,” said Prof. Heckman. “You want the students to benefit – that’s the goal. You want them to learn, and you want to inspire passion. I want my students to come out of my classes feeling passionate about what they’re learning and what we’re trying to do.”
When inciting passion, Heckman says it’s important to practice what you preach.
“I remember the teachers who most influenced me – they taught with enthusiasm and passion. I try to do the same. It can be difficult.
“I teach administrative law. When you mention that to people who may not be involved in it or in law school and they usually say ‘oh, that sounds dry.’ It’s a compulsory course – students new to law school have to take it. But it’s really not dry – in fact, it’s one area of the law in which you see its effects every day.”
Heckman says grounding his lessons in reality engages his students and makes his classes more interesting.
“As well as teaching with enthusiasm, I try to get the students involved in the subject and really thinking about the implications of their learning,” Heckman said. “For example, in constitutional law we talk about the separation of powers between municipal, provincial and federal governments.
“I ask my students what this really means to them. I get them to think about how they identify – are they Canadians? Manitobans? French-speaking Canadians? Members of a First Nation? Metis? Do they identify with many communities at once? Then I ask them – with that in mind, what does this separation of powers mean to you? What do you, as a French-speaking Manitoban, think of education being a provincial responsibility?
“Constitutional law isn’t dry when you view it through the lens of real life.”
Heckman says another way he’s learned to teach successfully is through coaching moot competitions.
“According to learning theory, the educational process goes from knowledge to application of knowledge to having professional skills and identifying as a professional,” he said. “You really see that process in action during the moots. Together with other coaches, I get to help them master their knowledge and skills, apply those skills and evaluate their own performances from professional and ethical standpoints. It’s perfect.
“I think students should feel what it’s like to be a lawyer, and there’s no better way to do that than through moots.”
According to Prof. Heckman, the environment at Robson Hall is another major key to his success.
“The students here are wonderful,” said Heckman. “Diverse, with varied perspectives – it’s always interesting for me. They’ll ask questions or offer critiques that help me evaluate my work. They help all of us broaden our views.
“The collegial, community atmosphere at Robson Hall is absolutely vital to teaching successfully, too. My colleagues are extremely generous in taking time to discuss teaching, especially among colleagues who teach in the same subject areas.
“Additionally, when we think of teaching we tend to think of the person behind the lectern – but a lot more than that goes into delivering a rigorous legal education. We have a wonderful community of administration, from our general office staff to our information technology staff all the way up to the Dean’s office.
“For example, one of our classes last year ran from 7:00 to 10:00 in the evening and required a ton of audio-visual and videoconferencing equipment. Thayalan Karthigesu, the IT Coordinator, would show up every time to make sure it all ran smoothly. You can’t take that kind of thing for granted.”
Another element of the Robson Hall environment conducive to great teaching is the Barney Sneiderman Award, Heckman said.
“It’s the second year we’ve had the award, and having that Faculty of Law-centric award has made my colleagues and I pay more attention to what we’re doing as teachers. Paying real attention to your teaching can be difficult when you’re so absorbed in it, and in your research, and in various communities throughout the province as many of us are. But having that Robson Hall-only teaching award helps you refocus on your work as an educator.”
As far as his future plans, Professor Heckman says he won’t get complacent.
“There’s no such thing as staying the course in teaching,” Heckman said. “Applying for the Stanton award gave me the chance to take stock of all the ways I’ve taught – you can never rest. Students are learning differently every single year – social media and technology are changing the way people imbibe information.
“There are foundational things – the basics of argument, oral and written, for example; the professional identity. The core abilities remain, but the ways in which students gain those abilities changes every day.
“I want to make sure I continue to cultivate relationships with students that allows for frank discussions and feedback, for me and for them. I look at my students as my partners in learning – we should both have a say in reaching our educational goals.”
Professor Heckman also had some advice for beginning teachers:
“Make teaching fun. It can be fun. When I started, I was somewhat terrified – it’s scary, standing in front of people and talking to them as the expert. But you can make it fun. Talk to your colleagues, and make use of the professional teaching resources available to you. Above all, though, have fun – energy, enthusiasm and passion will translate into your work and will help your students learn.”