“Oh my gosh! What am I supposed to do?!” a stunned Erika Breitfeld frantically asked when her name was called as the winner of a prestigious teaching award. “Do I have to say something?”
Breitfeld, an assistant professor at WMU-Cooley’s Auburn Hills, Mich., campus, was understandably surprised. At WMU-Cooley’s recent commencement ceremony, the young faculty member became the first-ever Research and Writing professor to win the school’s coveted Stanley E. Beattie Award for Excellence in Teaching. At the same time, she also became the first-ever faculty member from the Auburn Hills campus to win the award.
“To say I was shocked, is an understatement,” Breitfeld recalled. “I was completely blown away.”
Fellow professor Tammy Asher whispered back, “Yes, you have to do something. You have to make a speech!” Asher, who Breitfeld views as her mentor, said she could see Breitfeld absorb the shock and adjust on the spot.
“This calm comes over her and she gives this amazing speech,” Asher said.
Breitfeld joined the full-time faculty at WMU-Cooley in 2011. She teaches Research and Writing, as well as Advanced Writing. Both subjects feature small classroom populations and a heavy emphasis on professorial critiques of students’ writing projects. It’s hard to get a lot of “warm fuzzies” in that kind of setting to win a favorite teacher award that is voted on by members of the graduating class.
But Breitfeld transcended that difficult dynamic to break through the barriers and win the award.
How did she do it? A visit to Breitfeld’s office tells part of the story. Liberally decorated with personal memorabilia, including photos from Breitfeld’s recent wedding, the office is the professor’s home away from home. She’s there often and her door is always open to visitors. Whether they need to talk about a sticky problem with class material or something more personal, students have quickly learned they will find a willing listener in Breitfeld.
A chat with Breitfeld tells more of the tale. She is comfortable sharing her non-faculty life with others. She often uses real-life examples from her years as an assistant prosecutor in Macomb County, Mich., and doesn’t hesitate to share stories of challenges both in the courtroom and when she was a student.
For Breitfeld, the honor is not the unusual-looking statue, but what the award means in terms of support.
“It’s such a nice feeling,” she said. “It’s a validating feeling and makes me feel like I belong here.” The immediate and enthusiastic reaction from her fellow faculty members is also treasured by Breitfeld. “That was really touching – the faculty support,” she recalled. “You could feel how happy my colleagues were for me!”
Breitfeld was able to share her fantastic news with her husband in a post-graduation phone call, and with her family at an already planned dinner on that same Sunday. Then she was back in action, answering emails at all hours, meeting with students in both planned and impromptu meetings, guiding students in the classroom, and reveling in a career where she feels truly welcome.
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