Fowler earns Distinguished Teaching Award

For someone who resisted being a teacher for so long and admits trying to get away from the profession on occasion, Dr. Leah Fowler is remarkably gifted at what she does. Then again, maybe it's her honesty and humility that allows her to see teaching for all that it is, and therefore drives her to excel.

"I didn't ever want to be a teacher, I'm still puzzled that I'm here, this is not where I imagined I would be," says Fowler, who first planned a career in medicine.

But she is here and she's one of the best professors the University of Lethbridge has to offer, earning the 2009 Distinguished Teaching Award, which will be presented at the spring convocation ceremonies.

"For me, this award means that good teaching matters, and it's an honour to stand in for good teaching," says Fowler. "I'm just here as a representative for good teaching."

Her 12 years in the Faculty of Education have been marked by her thoughtful, knowledgeable and creative approach.

With a unique teaching style, she strives to create a classroom that is informal but intellectually stimulating and challenging. Employing a personal approach, Fowler extends herself to her students as she looks to develop a safe learning environment.

"I think if you can help people feel comfortable and have what they need then they'll press boundaries more, they'll take more risks because they have more courage," she says.

"I learn my students' names, I learn their narratives and I learn their needs. I find out what they're good at and then try and develop the things they're not so comfortable with so that they have a wide range of breadth and depth in their subject areas."

Fowler is the first to admit she doesn't have all the answers, and pushes the message that teaching is not about the teacher, rather it is about the student.

"I want it to be about possibility, and it's not about me at all, it's always about the student. Why are they here, what do they need and how are they going to get further?" she asks.

"I'm not the centre of the universe and neither is the student but somewhere in the middle we meet. What gets learned happens in that third space between the professor and the teacher. The interesting space is that middle ground in between. I stop halfway and hopefully make invitation for students to come the other half to meet me – it's not about me telling."

Fowler came late to teaching, having dabbled in trades as diverse as driver training instructor to recreational therapist to the owner of a house painting business. She's brutally honest when discussing teaching, accepting it for all its challenges and gaining a real-world perspective that resonates with her students.

"I've hated teaching, I've quit teaching three times," admits Fowler. "It takes all your heart and all your breath, and if you're in it, you're in it."

She currently teaches graduate students and pre-service teachers, spending much time supervising education students in practica. Her research interests delve into the difficulties of teaching and she has three books in the works as a result.

A winner of a 1992 Province of Alberta Teaching Excellence Award while she was still a high school teacher, Fowler continues to revel in the moments when she can see her lessons hit home.

"I always watch students' eyes for insight and I love that," she says. "They just get that quiet little grin and raise their eyebrows and you know they've hit on something. It happens enough, and often in an unexpected place, but that's the thing I'm always asking: Am I connecting? Are they engaged? I'm always looking for that."