This is an archived article. For the latest news, go to the Advance Homepage.
For more archives, go to the Advance Archive/Search Page

As educator and mentor, Reis nurtures her students' strengths
November 16, 1998

Sally Reis is already a few cups of coffee ahead of many of the graduate students gathered for her 9 a.m. seminar. She has just taught an undergraduate class. Now she'll spend the next three hours around the long oak table discussing a dissertation proposal.

Special Issue

Reis, a leading scholar in the area of gifted and talented education - primarily a graduate program at UConn, talks about Laurie Shute's topic with the others. Shute wants to examine how UConn honors students decide their majors.

Throughout the seminar Reis keeps the discussion moving, offering suggestions here and reinforcing confidence there. It's just another example of her ability to draw out the best in students and give them something back.

Given her outstanding reputation as an educator, it's no surprise that Reis, an associate professor of educational psychology, was chosen as a University Teaching Fellow this year. "That meant more to me than any professional award I've received," she says.

Her teaching style is known for an emphasis on the development of critical thinking skills. She customizes the learning experience for each student by identifying particular strengths and nurturing them. Reis, whose own research is school-based, also tries to provide practical opportunities for applying course content.

"Rather than being all theoretical she's able to root the content in real-world experiences so we can see the usefulness and validity of what we're talking about," says Shute, a third year doctoral student.

Students describe Reis in almost mantra-like terms as a compassionate and committed teacher.

"Ninety percent of teaching is caring," says Reis, who is known for creating a hospitable learning environment. "I care about students, especially at the doctoral level; it's a relationship with them that continues the rest of your life - professionally and personally."

"She's an incredibly busy woman but she always makes students feel important and special," says Betsey McCoach, a new Ph.D. student.

Shute agrees: "She goes out of her way to make me feel comfortable. Through the years we've built a dialogue and a relationship with her as my mentor."

Reis also recognizes that students have lives outside the classroom. "As a teacher she seems very sensitive to you as a person - not just as a graduate student," says Trevor Tebbs, who will submit his dissertation proposal next year.

In his early 50s, Tebbs was nervous about taking the Graduate Record Exam for entrance into UConn. "Sally was amazingly supportive," he recalls.

First-year doctoral student Marion Rogalla traveled from Switzerland to study with Reis. She says it was hard for her to make the transition from her own university experience, where students had rare contact with professors outside of the classroom, to accepting a dinner invitation at Reis's home. "She really tries to understand me and cultural differences," says Rogalla.

Graduate students deserve her attention, says Reis, who earned her Ph.D. from UConn in 1981. "People give up everything to come here for three or four years," she says. And, she notes, her students are mature adults with a different set of needs than most undergraduates. "You're working with people with children who get sick; who get divorced ... they matter to me."

And so do Reis's two young daughters. Somehow she manages to keeps a balance between the two things she loves most: teaching and her family.

"She's so busy and so involved," says Rogalla. "But when she's done here she leaves it behind and when she's home, she's home."

Well ... not always. Reis does occasionally mix the two parts of her life. On Halloween she showed up for a seminar dressed as a cow for an event later that day at her daughter's school.

Maintaining the work/family equilibrium is about making choices, says Reis. "There's always the work left undone; the book you want to write, the speaking invitation you turn down." Her latest book explores the challenges facing talented women and the compromises they often must make.

A former high school English teacher, Reis was first drawn to gifted education when she found ways to help students who fell behind but didn't know how to help students who were clearly ahead. She followed her interest to UConn and studied with Joseph Renzulli, a leading expert in gifted education, who later became her husband.

Students regard the academic couple with awe. "They're role models for the rest of us," beams McCoach.

In response, says Reis, "I've had great teacher role modeling in Joe Renzulli."

Not content to rest on her considerable laurels, Reis is always refining her pedagogical approaches.

Her class of 130 undergraduates is one of her current challenges. "I want to know how I can be a better teacher with that many students," she says. She hopes small group discussions, videos and role playing will help. "There's such a disconnect in that large a class if you just stand at the lectern."

She also believes in different forms of assessment. "Paper and pen multiple-choice exams have their place but it shouldn't be the only way we assess students," she says.

A major focus of her work is to persuade schools to move away from identification of gifted pupils to offering enrichment services for all kids. "We try to get teachers to respond to behavior," says Reis, who is president-elect of the National Association for Gifted Children.

Over the years Reis has had her share of well-meaning parents ask if their child is gifted. Usually she tries to direct the conversation to discuss the child's behavior and the school curriculum. But that's not always what the parent wants to hear. So Reis, ever diplomatic, reassures them their children are special indeed.

"I tell them every child is a gift to their parents."

Molly Colier