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Danielle Tarraf Wins Excellence in Teaching Award

May 21, 2012


Students inherently want to learn and succeed. Great teachers help them achieve these aims. They use passion, humor, dedication and even the occasional puppy or other prop to aid students on their path of discovery.

Good teachers also know how to adapt and, in these attention span-challenged days, keep topics interesting and engaging.

One Johns Hopkins professor finds inspiration in a quote from civil rights activist Howard Thurman. “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, go do it. Because what the world needs are people who have come alive.” This professor wants his students, and the act of learning, to do exactly that-come alive.

Some teachers follow in the footsteps of parents and grandparents, while others travel an indirect route to the profession. What the winners of this year’s Johns Hopkins Alumni Association Excellence in Teaching Awards have in common is that they all love to share knowledge, and all excel at what they do.

The award, which has been given annually since 1992, allows each academic division of the university to publicly recognize the critical importance of teaching. The nomination and selection processes differ by school, but students must be involved in the selection. Some schools give multiple awards in different classifications, such as the School of Public Health, which calls its awards Golden Apples.

This year, The Gazette asked the winners a series of questions so that they could share some insight on what inspires them and makes the process of learning a success.

Danielle C. Tarraf, assistant professor, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering

How would you describe your teaching philosophy? Obviously, it is very important to teach the students the course material. But it is even more important to train them to think analytically, and to train them to ask the right questions.

What’s the best piece of teaching advice you ever received? I don’t think I ever received teaching advice directly. I have learned by example, from observing all the great teachers I have been fortunate to have.

Did you have any teaching inspirations? I have been extremely lucky. I have had many wonderful teachers at various stages of my education, starting from middle and high school all the way through the doctoral program. I am greatly indebted to them for setting a high standard, and for positively influencing my education and career. I have observed several common traits among them: They all love the material they teach, and they all care deeply about their students.

Best teaching/classroom moment of the past year? It happens every semester: A student who starts out relatively weak gradually improves through the semester and goes on to earn one of the highest grades in the class. These instances give me a great sense of achievement.

What have you learned from your students? Their questions keep me on my toes. It’s great to revisit well-established concepts or results and view them through new eyes every semester.

By Greg Rienzi

Excerpted from the Johns Hopkins Gazette

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