Q and A with Betsy Rezel

The job title is different. The scope of the position is a bit bigger. But Betsy Rezel, Blackhawk Technical College’s Director of Learning Resources, carries the same goal she did before July 1 when her new position took effect.

“We can always grow in our ability to be a better teacher,’’ Rezel said recently during a wide ranging interview about her role at BTC.

Rezel has been in education for more than 40 years, starting as a teacher in the Milwaukee Public Schools system in 1972. She made stops at Cardinal Stritch College and Milwaukee Area Technical College before coming to BTC 3 ½ years ago.

Armed with an undergraduate degree from Ripon College, two masters degrees from Stritch and a doctorate from Marquette University, Rezel uses her teaching background to coach and support BTC instructors on effective ways to get their messages across to students in BTC classrooms.

When not looking for new and effective ways of teaching, Rezel can be found in her Waukesha home with her husband of 18 years, Bill, tending their garden. Or perhaps she is chasing after her two grandchildren, Izzy and Hakan, by way of her daughter, Sara. Or perhaps she and Bill are off traveling the United States or the world, like their recent visit to New Zealand where daughter Beth lives and works.

What follows is an edited version of our conversation with Betsy.

Q: How long have you been at Blackhawk?

A: I’ve been here for 3 ½ years. Before that I was at MATC (Milwaukee) for five years and at Cardinal Stritch College (in Glendale, WI) for 14 years.

Q: That’s a lot of time in the Milwaukee area.

A: I live in southern Waukesha County, about a mile from the exit to Highway 43. It’s an easy drive. It’s long. But when I worked at Stritch, it was driving through Milwaukee to the north side. It was shorter but definitely not easier.

Q: What did you teach at Stritch and at MATC?

A: At Stritch, I taught math and computer science. At MATC, I was Blackboard support.

Q: Describe what you do?

A: The Office of Learning Resources, which is new as of July 1, is all the areas that support faculty in their teaching.

Q: What does that entail?

A: First, we have the library, and you can imagine what that entails. They will come into the classroom and talk to the instructor and students about what is there. The library will work with faculty to get material they might want.

The Teaching Learning Center does all of the Blackboard and academic technology support for the faculty. (Cynthia Delcourt, teaching learning specialist,) will do workshops and provide one-on-one support, so if a teacher has any questions, just call her up and she’ll provide the support.

Faculty development is brand new. We don’t have a defined system right now and we are in the process of building a program. This will be done by a committee. Obviously, I have a vision, but the vision needs to come from the committee as a whole.

We are just beginning to advertise for the position of Curriculum and Assessment. This position will help guide faculty in developing curriculum and how to assess students.

Academic Technology, Online Learning and Blackboard are all staying with me. This is a guiding role.

Q: When and how did you start in education?

A: 1972 in the Milwaukee Public Schools.

Q: How is education different today?

A: Certainly, technology has changed a lot. What teachers and students expect from technology is different. In some ways, that has made it more complicated for students, especially our students.

Many of them are working adults who are juggling all sorts of things besides just going to school. Back in the 1970s, if you were in college, there was less chance you were doing all the other things many students have to do now. That makes it more complicated for us as teachers because the student doesn’t necessarily put education first.

Some of the students are consumers in the sense that they believe they are buying something and they should get something in return. That should always be the case, but in education, you have to extend the effort to get it, too. That can make it difficult.

Q: Has technology made education better?

A: It’s made it different. It can be better, but it’s not always. It needs to be integrated into what you are doing. You can’t put it on top and expect it to change things, nor should you think that technology is going to make it better when things aren’t happening the way you want.

When education is valued, you can teach differently. My daughter and I go through this all the time. She worries about her children’s education. I think they are going to be fine because they know what they do at school is valued in the home. What happens at home is so huge.

We train people to do a lot of things. But we never train them to be parents, which is a really important job.

Q: In Blackhawk’s case, with many students older than your typical college age student, is this something students then learn on their own? Is it something that comes with real-world experience and a return to school?

A: Students do figure out what education can do to help them reach what their goal is, whether that goal is to get a better job and make more money, or whatever their goal may be. Some of them do figure that out.

But while some figure it out, some still think they should be able to just buy it and it shouldn’t be hard. Unfortunately for some students, because of their educational experience, they may have the right attitudes but they don’t have the reading, writing and math skills. That’s hard to make up and it’s frustrating. It makes your brain hurt.

I don’t know if we’ve quite figured out how to deal with that, but we are trying some good things. We’ve hired a math teacher who is going to be integrated into some of our industrial programs in the Advanced Manufacturing area. That is going to be helpful because students will be doing the math in a class where they will actually have to use it. So we are trying some new things. We have to change what we are doing so it works for all the students.

Q: Can we develop a process that works for all students or do we have to temper our goals to find the process that works for as many students as it can?

A: It’s probably that, but it’s not one process. We have to have different ways to do things to address the needs of students. But I’m not sure we can succeed with everyone. We can’t be everything, and if we try to be everything, we may not do anything very well. Resources are tight so you have to do the best things you can for the most people we can.

Q: Do your travels influence how you think about education?

A: Not for this present job. When I was in Milwaukee, I was coordinating a program that was taught in prisons. So when I was traveling the country, I’d often go to the prisons that were part of the program if I was near them. I’d visit the students we had at different places. So sometimes it gets mixed in.

Q: How do you escape?

A: My husband and I do a lot of gardening. We grow flowers, mostly perennials. We’ve been trying to do more natives.

Q: Is gardening a release?

A: It’s relaxing. The other thing we do is volunteer at the Milwaukee Zoo. We help get volunteers for special events at the Zoo.

Q: Where do you see the Office of Learning Resources in 10 years?

A: I see faculty development growing into a vibrant program that makes a difference for faculty, helping them feel more energized about and connected with their jobs, helping the people who come in and want to teach but don’t have experience doing that. That’s a lot of our faculty because they are subject matter experts. I hope they will grow and learn from their peers and use it to help the students.

Q: So, if I were to use that old cliché about those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach, you’d probably be upset?

A: I’m appalled at the nationwide belief that anyone can teach without any support or help, that all you have to do is do it. I’m also appalled by the people who say that you are either a born teacher or you are not.

There are some people who are not going to be able to teach just because they don’t like people. But that’s not a big portion of people. Most come in and want to do a good job. They just need some help learning techniques, and people who have been teaching for a long time can learn new techniques. We can always grow in our ability to be a better teacher.

Q: How much can a teacher learn from a student?

A: The last years I was Stritch, I was teaching in their evening programs for adults, and I learned a lot. Their sharing what was happening in their companies, in their lives, was great.

Teachers have to be ready to change. One group of students may respond one way but the next group may not respond to the same thing the same way. You have to have a bag of tricks and be ready to pull out something if one group is different from another.

Q: Is it overly simplistic, then, to say your role here is to add to those tricks in the bag?

A: That one I’ll go with. That’s a good summary of what this whole office is supposed to do. I like that bag of tricks. I might have to use that as a logo.