Educator of the Month, February 2024: Tanya Iretskaia

Michigan State University is fortunate to have passionate educators who are committed to enhancing the experience of their students and who help to provide the best education possible.

The Graduate School is featuring some of these educators – graduate and postdoc educators – every month to share their unique stories and perspectives on what it means to be a dedicated educator, how they’ve overcome educational challenges, and the ways they have grown through their experiences.

For February 2024, we are featuring Tatiana “Tanya” Iretskaia, a doctoral candidate in the Sustainable Tourism and Protected Areas Management program. In her writeup, Tanya uses her extensive travel experience to help her students achieve their dreams.

What does it mean to be an educator at a university?

So many things! You are in constant contact with students, you learn new things every day – be it communication skills or what’s ‘on’ for the current generation, but, perhaps, most importantly you ‘give back’ and pass down what someone taught you years ago and what you learned on your own. In a bigger picture, you are contributing to humanity’s eternal thread.

I have two favorite quotes related to education. The first is by the 1921 Nobel Prize winner in Literature, a Frenchman Anatole France: “Awaken people’s curiosity… Open minds”. The second is by Rachel Carson: “The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction”.Tatiana "Tanya" Iretskaia in front of a body of water wearing a yellow-and-blue plaid shirt.

In the spirit of these quotes, the educator to me is someone who is able to inspire the students, to awaken their curiosity, to point the hidden connections, to show that our world is indeed full of wonders, and, also, that the ‘sky is the limit’ in terms of what one should dream of. I, an ordinary girl, have worked in or traveled to 80 different countries, so I speak from experience.

If an educator is able to create memorable and meaningful moments when interacting with students, they will go back to these moments as source of inspiration and self-reflection for years to come. I know that because for my doctoral research I study such special (transformative) experiences and their long-term impact!

What challenges have you experienced and how have you grown from them?

Hmm, where do I start? What jumps to mind first is me coming from a different culture – as in I did not grow up in the U.S. and (with an exception of one year) did not do my schooling here. Which means I do not share the same background with students from the Mid-West. The flip side of this is, of course, that I can relate to the MSU’s substantial population of international students for whom English is not a first language.

To ‘remedy’ this I found it super useful to take classes myself – for example, I’ve been taking foreign language classes for two years in a row now – this way you are back in the student’s seat, you are learning something that is non-intuitive to you, and a lot of your class time is spent learning to talk about topics that matter to students (i.e., getting closer to their reality). I found that the more I can relate to students, the more I am empathetic, and the better overall my own classes (the ones that I deliver) come out.

Another challenge – well, I started teaching right during COVID – that meant either doing it fully online or in a classroom with everyone in masks. So hard to recognize anyone in person later on! I think everyone grew immensely in the use of technology, Zoom and being able to speak super clearly as a result of this. This being super explicit and clear about your message, expectations, plans, etc., has been helpful not just in teaching, but in everyday academic life as well.

What value do you see in Teaching Professional Development?

How do you put value to something that is priceless? First, I really benefited from so many resources MSU provides to its graduate students interested in teaching – not only its wonderful Certification in College Teaching program, but also two fellowship cohorts – FAST (Future Academic Scholars in Teaching) and IIT (Interdisciplinary Inquiry in Teaching). The many sessions there focused on developing our communication, presentation, teaching and research skills, but also on introducing us to the fields of pedagogy, on how to make your sessions ‘stick’, on why active learning is a great tool, and so on. More than one session was eye-opening and talked about things I didn’t even realize I should think about (say, those oriented in writing different types of career-focused statements) – but that was very valuable, in hindsight. Thank you so much to everyone involved!

An even greater value was, perhaps, in meeting like-minded people, both among peers and our mentors. In my home department being a GTA is an exception. Hence, being in the same room (or Zoom) with GTAs from other fields in similar stages of academic journey and having numerous meaningful conversations is a big perk of our (MSU’s) professional development in teaching. Last but not least is the fact that MSU is part of CIRTL – the Center for Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning. Those workshops are more career-oriented, and, again, have been an exceptional opportunity to communicate with like-minded people, but now on a national level.

What is one piece of advice you would give other graduate educators?

Do not be afraid to make mistakes (and then admit to them, of course) – apparently, this makes you more relatable! An example jumps to mind: prior to the very first class I was teaching by myself at MSU, I sent everyone a welcome email with wrong classroom location. The follow-up email had to start with ‘No one is perfect, including your instructor’. I am also that person who called the In-class Tech support for … a computer that was simply unplugged. Ask me for more stories like that – I have plenty! But seriously, in hindsight, it all contributed to creating a friendly and open atmosphere in classroom.

Classroom-wise, things that have been working for me (and most are tips and tools that I ‘borrowed’ by observing other educators) are: using storytelling; personalizing material (as in making it as relevant to those students and to the day of the class as possible); speaking slowly and with pauses; using humor; and just being your genuine you. Look forward to each class – after all, it’s an opportunity to share something that you are excited about.

What do you enjoy in your free time?

In my free time lately I’ve taken a KIN class – in tennis! One of the best decisions so far – as you have zero expectations or ambitions, yet so much fun, plus it ‘clears’ your mind! Off-campus-wise, I walk, bike, try to catch sunsets and sunrises, to attend music or theater performance, and in general to make each day somewhat memorable. I am also always making new travel plans.