Firas Mansour: Teaching with a Light Touch
Written by Bailey Jacobs, Special Projects (Teaching Stories), CTE.
When you walk into a first-year physics classroom of Firas Mansour the mood is light and among the students there is an energized dynamic. If you walk into class six minutes late, however, that's when the levity really begins.
Disruptions caused by tardy students can be a serious problem but they can be handled effectively with a light touch. The rule in Mansour’s classroom is that late students are expected to do a short stand-up comedy performance for the class to enjoy. The rationale for this policy is that the few minutes occasionally devoted to a brief stand-up routine are more than made up for by the incentive it gives students to arrive on time. The tardiness rule is only one of the many light-hearted ways that Mansour injects enthusiasm into his classes.
Mansour, an instructor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy with 19 years of teaching experience at the University of Waterloo, has many sources of pedagogical inspiration. One of them is what he describes as the “basic inner goodness” of his students. He believes that honouring the innate goodness of students, and relating to them on a “sublime level,” is the key to “transcending the barrier” between himself and his class.
Mansour transcends the barrier between instructor and student in many ways. In a lecture hall filled with hundreds of faces, he knows the majority of the students sitting in front of him by name. Addressing students by name allows Mansour to bridge the gap between instructor and student and, in turn, connect with the students authentically. A personal connection between instructor and student, something as simple as knowing students' name, provides students with an additional incentive to attend classes and amplifies their desire to perform well. Mansour believes this approach helps his students become accountable for their own academic success. Krista Boghosian, a former student of Mansour’s, elaborates: “His motivation to teach me expanded into a self-motivation to learn and do well in his course…. I thought, heck, if this guy cares so much, I should probably care too!”
“Me, on a comfort level, I like the environment to be fun,” states Mansour when discussing the mood of his classroom. His students wouldn’t have it any other way. “He creates interactive learning environments that are not only educational and memorable but also hilarious,” says Boghosian. Between bringing props to class for impromptu experiments, joking with students individually, and sharing personal stories and anecdotes, Mansour’s students never know what to expect when they sit down in class, but it's guaranteed there will never be a dull moment. “Physics is about life and life is fun, so a class should also include fun like life," says Mansour.
Mansour believes that “one oscillates between being infinitely serious and infinitely playful” and that great teaching requires a person to shuffle between the two, “sampling from the different wavelengths and states of being.” While Mansour has no problem being an “infinitely serious” instructor, he contends that a playful approach gets him miles further.
Mansour, a 2012 Distinguished Teacher Award recipient, views education as a continuously evolving element of his personal being. He states, “teachers are not always born, they can be made” and there is “always room for improvement.” Mansour elaborates this latter point by quoting Paulo Coelho: “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” Mansour is alluding to a decision he made some time ago to improve his teaching by drawing on the expertise of colleagues and CTE resources. He was clearly successful in this regard.
Mansour is also a champion of his students' academic development and patiently provides the assistance necessary to ensure the intellectual success of each individual. Whether holding his weekly two-hour evening review session or making himself available for one-on-one meetings with students who require extra help, Mansour is fully invested in their success. His student Krista Boghosian recounts that, “day in and day out, Mansour would come to class more energized than his students, more eager to teach than we were to learn.”
Perhaps Mansour's dedication and enthusiasm is best affirmed by his admission that “I don’t view teaching as a job—it’s a hobby, it’s fun… I look forward to it because I always come out more energized than I went in.”
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CTE has developed more than 100 Teaching Tips. Each one is a succinct document that conveys useful ideas and practical methods for effective teaching. Some of the Teaching Tips that are relevant to the strategies mentioned in this Teaching Story can be found here.