Educator of the Month, January 2023: Samara Chamoun

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 January 2023, we are featuring Samara Chamoun, a doctoral candidate in Mathematics. She shares how understanding and respecting both your own boundaries and those of your students allows both teacher and students to succeed.

A headshot of Samara Chamoun in a coat and hat.What does it mean to be an educator at a university?

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to being an educator at a university. Over the years, I have altered my definition of "educator" significantly, and I am certain that this definition will continue to change as I continue to learn and grow as a person. To me, education is not limited to enhancing students' academic performance. It is about being there for students in a number of unique ways. Sometimes it is helping them with math (or other content), sometimes it is giving them space to express themselves, and sometimes it is conveying a message of "we notice you, we see you, and we believe in you.”

Prior to coming to MSU, I taught math in a high school for a year and conducted problem-solving sessions at my college. Previously, I was very concerned about providing students with so much information and solving as many problems as possible with clean solutions and perfect explanations. I felt that this was the best way to help them. This was so stressful and made the entire experience less rewarding for me. Everything changed when I switched my attitude toward teaching, when I started caring more about establishing connections with students, and when I started focusing on the students more than the content. Eventually, education became a strong passion of mine.

My passion for education is sparked by loving kindness and compassionate pedagogy and practices in teaching mathematics. In addition, I am a strong advocate that our courses should not teach students solely how to do math (or other content), but also how to get back on track when life happens, how to manage their time, and how to develop coping skills and success strategies that might be useful in their personal and academic life – things like resilience, growth mindset, perseverance, executive functioning skills, work-life balance, etc.

Furthermore, I believe that it is crucial to acknowledge that not all our students start from the same place. They all have different paths, and their learning is impacted by their personal life experiences, identities, past traumas, and perceptions. Serving a diverse population of students at MSU has made me realize that we need to take an active role in adjusting those imbalances.

Now more than ever, we need to find a way to support struggling students and meet them where they are in their learning journey. When identifying struggling students, we need to take into consideration not only content barriers but also factors related to their personal life, time management skills, math anxiety, their own self-belief, and self-efficacy in mathematics.

Ideally, being an educator is about creating an environment in which all students can thrive, where learning is not associated with stress, where the process is more significant than the result, and where our differences are valued and our uniqueness is celebrated.

What are some challenges you have experience and how have you grown from these?

As I mentioned above, letting go of the “restrictive” definition of teaching was the most challenging yet most rewarding part of my journey as an educator. With the right mentoring that I was so fortunate to have, I was able to explore new interpretations of being an educator and tailor this role to what aligns with my own aspirations and philosophy. I was able to build stronger connections with students by doing the following:

  • Trusting students’ stories and listening to them with compassion, without prejudice and judgment.
  • Engaging in dialogue with them, giving them space to share their feelings, and valuing their voice, their unique experience, and what they bring into the classroom.
  • Identifying students’ needs, being open to accommodations, and making the first step of reaching out.
  • Keeping in mind that our students are not only “students”; they are individuals who might have so much happening outside class.

Another challenge I have encountered during my time as a GTA has been the inability to confine my goals and interests to one specific area. Due to this, I became more sympathetic toward my own students and their need to take their time to figure out what they want to do in their life.

The discovery of who I am outside of my responsibilities as an educator has been another challenge. When you are truly passionate about something, it is very easy to become consumed by it. Therefore, I have struggled (and still struggle sometimes) to set boundaries. One turning point for me was a quote I heard from Brene Brown about the fact that the most compassionate people are those who maintain the clearest boundaries.

For me to be able to continue and sustain promoting compassion and kindness in my classroom, I must establish healthy boundaries. The definition of “healthy boundaries” can be very different from one person to another. For me, it is the ability to separate my value from my work and my happiness from my accomplishments. It is also the ability to take some time off and pursue more interests outside work.

What value do you see in Teaching Professional Development?

As we begin our teaching careers, we may not always know how to best prepare ourselves to serve such a diverse student population. This is when we should ask ourselves what we should do to be better prepared. What professional development workshops should we attend? Who should we talk to? What opportunities and resources should we pursue?

The professional development sessions I have attended offered me ways to understand students' motivations and develop techniques for supporting them in their learning journey, as well as in their college and personal lives. They also helped me reflect on my own teaching practices, implement more effective teaching practices in my classroom and share difficulties that arise.

But most importantly, it was during these experiences that I met so many amazing educators and people that have made my Ph.D. journey such a rewarding and fulfilling one; people that continue to inspire me and support me every day.

These professional development opportunities shape a unique path for each graduate student to explore their passion, develop new skills, gain new perspectives, and tailor their Ph.D. journey to fit their personal goals. When educators work together and share our experiences and struggles, we can explore new territories, build meaningful relationships with our peers, and collaborate in creating a better learning experience for our students.

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

Not that I'm qualified to offer advice, but I will share some things I tell myself that might be useful to other graduate students and graduate educators.

  • Remember that you are not your job! You are so much more, and you should not define yourself within the limit of a job or a degree, no matter how passionate you are about it. One thing that always calms me down is telling myself that no matter what happens, I will always be “a heart and a soul,” and that’s what matters.
  • Be critical. It is okay to wonder sometimes if things are being done the right way. We have the tendency to wait for something as big as the pandemic to make us slow down and change things. Not everything established is the right way to do things. It is okay to wonder, it is okay to ask, it is okay to raise questions, it is okay to be critical, and it is okay to do it all with compassion.
  • Don’t overburden yourself with so much weight. Yes, we have a great responsibility to make changes. However, we do not "need" to do everything and you certainly don’t need to do earthshaking changes. There is nothing like a “little something” to shake things up. So, always try to do something.
  • Make sure you surround yourself with like-minded people and inspiring mentors who will push you to be your best self and to keep going even when things get tough.

What do you enjoy in your free time?

As I mentioned previously, one of my ways of establishing healthy boundaries is to enjoy things outside of school. In my free time, I enjoy reading; I hold books in such high regard because they have always been a constant in my life. It was challenging for me to constantly face things outside my control, move from one place to another, and be away from family and friends, so I turned to books for stability as they bring me so much peace and joy.

I enjoy traveling a lot and I recently started a journey of chasing libraries and bookshops around the world. In addition, I love writing! There is magic in putting feelings, moments, and experiences into words that I cherish forever. There is a lot of power in words, and I believe that words can heal and change the world. My keychain says, “We write of eternal things,” by Antoine-Saint-Exupery.

My favorite way to relax after a long day is to watch shows and movies while eating food I love and putting away my phone. Some of my favorite things to do in East Lansing are hanging out at Coffee Shops and watching plays at the Wharton Center with my friends. If you haven't visited the Wharton Center, you should! It's one of my favorite places around