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  October 23, 2000

Outstanding Teacher Engages
Students Through Storytelling Skills

There are moments when you could close your eyes and imagine there's a campfire in the center of the room and Nina Heller is teaching a course in storytelling. Over the course of two hours, she tells her students many stories.

They are good stories, loaded with dark wisdom about the human condition. Heller's characters live on various edges. They struggle with life and death. They do the best they can. Sometimes they exhibit exceptional courage. All too often it's not good enough. There's a lot of sadness and loss in their lives. Now and then there are moments of bright, ironic humor.


There is the man who, after his father contracts a fast-growing cancer and dies, adopts all of his father's habits, changes his wardrobe, begins collecting the things his father collected, starts to become his father.

There is the woman who claims to remember nothing about her mother - even though it was she who, as a child, discovered her mother's body in the garage, after her mother committed suicide.

There is the man who is distraught over the death of his dog. Only it turns out the dog's death has conjured up the ghost of his father, who died when the man was still young, and to whose sudden passing he has never been able to reconcile himself.

The students pay close attention to these stories, studying the clues in individuals' behaviors that may reveal what is going on in their minds - not just because they will be tested on this material, or because they will have to write papers about it. They pay attention because Nina Heller is a great storyteller. And her gift is all the greater because her stories are true, and she cares about the real people who populate them.

Heller is an associate professor at the UConn School of Social Work. Now in her seventh year at UConn, she previously lectured at Smith College and, for 15 years, was a member of the professional staff of the Brattleboro Retreat, a private psychiatric hospital in Brattleboro, Vt., where she still maintains a home and a private practice in psychotherapy.

Her entry into teaching came at Smith, while she was completing her doctorate in the late 1980s. Dealing with "some very challenging patients," she had gone back to school because she felt she needed more clinical education. But she was invited to teach a course and that, combined with the satisfaction she'd gotten from supervising a group of graduate students at Brattleboro convinced her she had a calling to teach.

Since coming to UConn, she has taught nine different courses, five in the past two years. She rotates the courses in order to stay fresh, maintaining course outlines she has developed, but constantly updating the courses with new material from professional journals and from her own clinical practice. The stories she tells in the class are a tool to link case concepts with important ideas in social work theory.

Teaching, says Heller, is helpful in both her scholarship - she often gets ideas for papers she is working on - and her clinical work. Though her work with her clients often informs the class, she also gets insights from students that help her address clients' problems.

"My teaching is about professional education," she says. "I have a real investment in graduating good, competent professionals. And the students, in turn, demand the best. Our students have real clarity about what they want from their education. They are mature. Nearly all of them have some degree of experience in the field. Many are making major sacrifices - balancing their career and family responsibilities - to be here. I feel that I owe them the very best."

Apparently, that's what she is giving them, because the students give her high marks for her teaching.

"She's a very focused professor," says Laura Washburn, of Amherst, Mass., who makes a weekly trek to West Hartford to participate in Heller's Casework 3 course, one of four casework courses students at the School are required to complete. "Because the course is clearly laid out, she's able to allow a great deal of student participation. And there's a great comfort level. Students want to participate and bring their experiences to her class."

Andrea Krofina, of Trumbull, agrees: "She's also very patient. She answers questions and uses examples from her own experience. She tries to relate the course to the work her students are doing. It makes the course very real."

"It's clear that she's very committed to her clients," says Sarah Matus, of Glastonbury. "She presents a lot of cases and materials from her private practice and we learn not only from what she's doing, but from the way she relates to the people she's helping. You want to emulate her style."

Students are not the only ones impressed with Heller's work. Last spring she won two major university-wide awards - the Alumni Association Award for Excellence in Teaching and the only University Teaching Fellowship awarded this year.

"It's gratifying to be recognized for something that's so much fun and really feels like second nature," says Heller. "What's most gratifying is the opportunity to work with these students. Their commitment to the profession is inspiring."

Jim Smith