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Teaching: Leading the Learning Boat to Shore

Rima Azar, M.Sc., Ph.D., Associate Professor of Health Psychology and Founder/Director of the Psychobiology of Stress & Health Lab, Mount Allison University; Co-Director, NaviCare/SoinsNavi

I am an Associate Professor of Health Psychology at Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick.

Teaching is part of my job, in addition to research, service, and administrative tasks for a virtual teaching-patient navigation centre for children with complex care needs that Dr. Shelley Doucet, from UNB Saint John, and myself co-founded.

I teach students at all training levels, from the undergraduate, to graduate, and post-doctoral levels. Regardless of talent, mentoring undergraduate students is more time-consuming than collaborations with more independent trainees.

I teach four courses per year, from a large first year introductory course on the biological bases of behaviour (N = 200), to health psychology (N = 75), perinatal health psychology (N = 75), up to a fourth-year student-led seminar in developmental psychoneuroimmunology (N = 20). I also taught a Methods course (N = 65).

Unlike Québec, there is no CEGEP here. As an educator, I happily witness students blooming, from the moment they transition to university to their graduation.

Although I see the beautiful Bay of Fundy from my office window, the “learning boat” I am referring to is not related to the ocean. This is what I visualize, term after term, from the first lecture onward. For instance, I see it when we dissect our course outline. I tell students that the latter is our “contract”: “You know what to expect in this course whilst learning about what to do to succeed, as I share what I expect from you”.

Each student is unique. Each journey is different. As the “captain” of the “learning boat”, I have the duty to get our boat to shore. The first sailing priority is safety (i.e., depart, navigate, and safely get to the shore). Second, there is the fun of learning (e.g., learning to learn and being critical). Third, there is the needed energy to sustain the trip for 3-4 months/term.

Although learning journeys are processes, I am mindful of time (it goes by fast when teaching!). With tight deadlines, my students and myself are “in the same boat”, so to speak. During any journey, unexpected life circumstances may happen to students. Sometimes, adversity happens in their country of birth. At other times, we have snowstorms.

Storms or not, I am blessed to live in our beautiful Atlantic Canada. Despite teaching demands, I do have a life that I enjoy. Obviously, because I work in a less populated region, my spouse often travels for his own career (others may struggle to find jobs in our smaller town). As a family, we had three consecutive miscarriages. We have then fostered children. We also hosted an exchange high school student from the Netherlands (an enriching life experience).

As a teacher, I aspire to be a good “captain” of the learning boat. By this, I mean as best as I can realistically be, like a good-enough parent. I do not aim for perfection but rather for excellence, with realistic expectations. For the large class, I happily rely on a talented team (support from the Department staff, administrative assistants, teaching assistants).

Although I always prepare, arriving early, I also see myself going with the flow whilst enjoying the “flow” (what we experience in a given moment). Not every lecture feels like a smooth flow at first. During early lessons, after late working hours, my brain is literally sleeping until the first word comes out of my mouth (talking in a microphone is stronger than coffee!). I sometimes wonder what language is going out of my mouth (English is my third language).

As the captain of the learning boat, I guess I am firm whilst being accessible to students. I care and I try to be fair. Using concrete examples, I try to simplify complex concepts. When funny situations happen, I use them as educational tools, after a good laugh with students.

Although I am passionate about the material I teach, after 11 years, I still do not know why I enjoy teaching. Is it because I love students and cherish relationships? Is it because I am task-oriented or is it because I love learning, period?

Regardless, it is highly rewarding to work with students, to learn with/from them, and to foster their successes. Ultimately, independent of the course material, teaching is all about educating students to nurture their own leadership skills.

About Rima Azar, M.Sc., Ph.D.

Rima Azar, M.Sc., Ph.D., Associate Professor of Health Psychology and Founder/Director of the Psychobiology of Stress & Health Lab, Mount Allison University; Co-Director, NaviCare/SoinsNavi

Dr. Rima Azar is an Associate Professor at Mount Allison University where she joined the Psychology Department in 2008, earned tenure in 2011, and is the founder/director of the Psychobiology of Stress & Health Lab (PSHL). Dr. Azar is also the Co-Director of NaviCare/SoinsNavi, which is a navigation centre for children/youth with complex care needs and their families in New Brunswick. Dr. Azar held a CIHR New Investigator in Developmental Psychoneuroimmunology award from 2011-2016. She is an Adjunct Professor in the School of Psychology in the Faculty of Health Sciences and Community Services at the Université de Moncton, an Adjunct Professor at Dalhousie Medicine New Brunswick, and an Honorary Research Associate in the Interdisciplinary PhD Program at the University of New Brunswick (UNB).

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