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Wilfrid Laurier University Leaf
December 21, 2014

Canadian Excellence



Educational Development old

Deena Mandell - "It's a life and learning thing"

Dec 10/10

Dr. Deena Mandell, Associate Professor in the Faculty of Social Work, believes in the old adage: "Take risks: If you win, you will be happy; if you lose, you will be wise."

"It's the most important thing, for me, that my classroom is a place where students feel OK to think out loud, ask questions, and take risks," says Mandell, who joined the faculty at Laurier in 1998. Along with instructing Masters and PhD level students, she also began teaching in the Laurier Association for Lifelong Learning (LALL) program for the first time earlier this year.

"I have been a social worker for a good part of my life," says Mandell, who worked professionally in Toronto and Peel Region for 13 years prior to completing her PhD. "So, I do have some skills at helping people feel they can trust the environment in which they're in and feel supported in meeting their challenges -- there is definitely a skill base there that is transferred over from social work."

Mandell also listens to her students. "We begin those more challenging classes with a discussion about, 'What do you imagine you're going to be asked to do here, and what do you need in order to be able to achieve that?' And from there, we form a class contract.

"There is a mix of applied work to get them prepared for a difficult and challenging career, and it involves a lot of themselves as people, their ideas and their beliefs. It is not the same as teaching them geography or science."

Mandell believes humility, and keeping an open dialogue with her students is key to teaching professional graduate school. "As a teacher, you really need to be aware of diversity in the classroom -- watch what you say, and how you say it. And be sure that what you're teaching them doesn't only apply to some groups, and yet it's being taught as what is universally true.

"You really need to be aware that we don't all have the same background, even when we look the same." she adds. "We really need to start being aware that other people have different perceptions of the world, and different experiences that can enrich the classroom. It makes it a little more complicated to teach, but it also makes for a much richer experience if you can keep that input coming in.

"One more piece of advice for anyone starting to teach in this field, is to find a balance between presenting your own prepared material in a way you structured it, while being able to go with what is sparking the students' interest at the moment."

In her own research early on in her career, Mandell focused on the interfaces between families and larger systems, including the justice system, health services and child welfare. Currently, her work focuses on educational methodologies for social work practice in the contemporary context. She has also published two books along with numerous articles, presented at national and international conferences and has done guest teaching in three different countries abroad, by invitation.

At Laurier, the courses she instructs in the Masters program include Social Work Practice with Individuals, Use of Self, and Social Work Practice with Families -- both basic and advanced levels. In addition, Writing for Publication is a Doctoral level course she teaches.

"Most of the classes I teach, students have to really put themselves out there," says Mandell, who taught six students in the doctoral program this past year. "They really expose themselves to other people, their thoughts, their skills in writing, along with their ability to apply what's being learned.

"While it's not completely different from other graduate schools -- there are some courses that are straight theoretical stuff -- it is a different kind of environment, so the requirements are different, because of the nature of what we're teaching them, especially in the practice courses. The class sizes are much smaller than undergraduate, but much bigger than your typical graduate class. We'll get about 25 people in a class."

For Dr. Deena Mandell, "it's a life and learning thing," she says about teaching professional graduate school in the Faculty of Social Work. "More than anything, I believe that a very big part of my role is to encourage students to take risks, and to make them feel safe in doing that, given that nothing is foolproof."
She concludes, "And that's my approach to preparing these people for a very difficult and challenging profession."

Marshall Ward was a studio instructor for five years in the Fine Arts Program at Laurier, and was the recipient of the 2007 Wilfrid Laurier University Award for Teaching Excellence, Part-Time Contract Academic Staff. He is a weekly columnist with the Waterloo Chronicle and contributing writer for SLAM! Wrestling (Canoe/Sun Media).

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