This issue: Summer 2018

Why I Teach: Sue O'Donnell

The psychology professor has always taught through story. Recently that meant sharing with students her personal narrative of loss and grief.

By Kimberly Felton


er husband’s death was not in the syllabus. The course curriculum did not call for the professor to work through deep grief while teaching her students about human development and psychology.

Yet that was the course set for Sue O’Donnell at the beginning of the 2017-18 school year. “I figured out pretty quickly that teaching was the constant in the midst of all the uproar,” she says. “Everything else is uprooted and changing, but I have a sense of certainty about who I am as a teacher.”

O’Donnell did what she always – well, almost always – has done: be herself.

Growing up, teaching was the one thing O’Donnell’s mother told her not to do; it had not been a good fit for her teacher-turned-lawyer mother. But while earning her degree in research psychology, O’Donnell discovered through an internship that teaching did fit her well. “It is who I am,” she says.

You see her in photo after photo with graduating students. You hear about cookouts, study evenings and “Survivor” nights at her house. But early on, O’Donnell struggled to discover exactly what kind of a teacher she was.

“I remember sitting down with [then dean of faculty development] Becky Ankeny,” she recalls. “I was struggling with my course evals, and Becky asked, ‘What are you trying to accomplish?’ She helped me see I don’t have to do things the way other people do them. I can teach out of who I am. Parker Palmer writes about that, too ... that was where I got permission to be me instead of trying to model my grad professor or the person down the hall.”

Her calling is to relationship. Teaching gives her the mechanism for that, while stories give O’Donnell the mechanism to teach.

“I laugh and say I give the hardest exams on campus. . . . But then I also try really hard to provide support so they can attain those expectations. Semester after semester, students come back and say,‘I had no idea I could do that.’”

“We remember through story,” she says. “By telling a story, you embed meaning into the dry research facts you’re trying to teach.” So she uses stories students recognize – like episodes of the long-running reality TV show “Survivor” – to illustrate psychology concepts. When a smart-aleck student suggested they all watch the show together, she tossed out her own challenge: “You guys come over and watch “Survivor,” and I’ll give you extra credit each time you apply a course concept to a survivor behaving like an adolescent.”

“Survivor” night was born. Fifteen years later, students still come; many of them graduated, some now attend with spouses.

This past fall, O’Donnell was not prepared for her life to be the story that taught her students the most. She began the school year with gaping wounds from her husband’s death. But she showed up and she taught, allowing the wounds to show.

The church sends the message that because we’re Christians we should have joy; so if we don’t have a smile on our face, we’re doing it wrong,” she says. “I threw that out the window. Some days I can’t have a smile on my face, but I show up, I tell them this is where I am today, and this is what we're going to do about it."

She continued to teach and expected her students to learn. “I laugh and say I give the hardest exams on campus. They work hard for me because they know I care. But then I also try really hard to provide support so they can attain those expectations. Semester after semester, students come back and say, ‘I had no idea I could do that.’”

When one student said she was not doing well in the course, O’Donnell urged her to take a second look. “I reframed it for her, and she could see that what she was doing was remarkable. She was comparing herself to people she shouldn’t have been comparing herself to. All I had to do was put it in context.”

O’Donnell’s context shifted dramatically this year, but she allowed her life, as well as her lessons, to teach her students. “In class you handled your loss with such grace, genuineness and strength it reminded me that I could, too,” wrote one student who also experienced deep loss this year. “You taught me it was OK not to be OK. ... Thank you for teaching me so much more than the course material this semester.”

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