Two Spartans from the College of Education will receive Excellence-in-Teaching Citations from Michigan State University on May 11, 2022.
Eric Leszczynski, a doctoral student in the Kinesiology Ph.D. program, and Romina S. Peña-Pincheira, a graduate of the Curriculum, Instruction and Teacher Education (CITE) program, will receive their honors during the annual All-University Awards.
Leszczynski comes from a family of Spartans: His dad and brothers are graduates of MSU, and Leszczynski himself is working on his third degree within the Department of Kinesiology. It has always been home to him.
Teaching was less of an immediate calling—it wasn’t something he imagined doing. When an opportunity arose serving as a teaching assistant, he found he loved it. Now, he cannot imagine doing anything else.
“I love the mentoring aspect of teaching,” said Leszczynski, who earned a B.S. in Kinesiology in 2017 and an M.S. in Kinesiology in 2019. “I’m not just here to teach students, but also to help students become professionals.”
He teaches applied anatomy labs and exercise physiology courses, what he calls the “backbone” for many future careers in healthcare, well-being and athletics. The courses can be dense, covering both muscles and bones of the body and how it functions, so Leszczynski works to ensure his students feel heard and that his teaching adapts to their needs to meet them where they are at. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, when many students were unable to have in-person classes, it can mean returning to the basics and revisiting curricula to ensure students understand the material before moving forward.
In addition, he regularly asks for informal and formal feedback (rate how you liked this lecture or module) to shift his teaching throughout the semester.
“Students are more than just a body in the classroom,” he says. “They are their own person! They have lived experiences, things that have impacted why and how they’ve gotten to where they are and who they are. Getting to know them helps me help them. I want to meet them where they are at, while also maintaining rigorous academics.”
In addition to teaching, Leszczynski is embedded in research at MSU, also with the goal of improving health outcomes. He strives to find ways to improve physical activity engagement and get more people to be active. Current research projects are examining how early life interventions can have future implications throughout the lifespan.
“MSU helped me find what I want to do with my career,” Leszczynski says. “It’s an honor to be recognized. I’m thankful to my students, my advisor David Ferguson and the Department of Kinesiology for all their support!”
Romina S. Peña-Pincheira
Peña-Pincheira’s teaching and research is guided by culture and a sense of self.
Peña-Pincheira originally hails from Chile, where she studied English language and literature and earned a bachelor’s in English Education as well as a teaching certification. She has spent time leading in traditional educational spaces and in less conventional areas, like a juvenile detention center, where a new interest came to light: promoting social justice.
“As a young teacher, I was resistant to teaching English how I was taught to teach it, leaning into linguistics and reading phonetically,” said Peña-Pincheira, who has taught courses not only in the College of Education but also MSU’s Residential College of Arts and Humanities. “I wanted something else for my students.”
A classroom, Peña-Pincheira believes, should allow for freedom of expression and for curiosity to take over. It helps the students feel heard and seen, and it also helps teachers feel encouraged and driven to continue the work. It’s partially why Peña-Pincheira found a home in the CITE program, where people supported her desires to branch out of disciplinary constraints and boundaries and be bold. She wants the same for those who are pursuing their own career paths.
“Surround yourself with people who make you feel free,” she says. “Surround yourself with people who say the word ‘should’ less than they give you freedom to do what it is you want to do. Surround yourself with people who ask you questions and push you, not people who only give you rules.”
With the same goals in mind, Peña-Pincheira encourages her students—who will go on to be educators themselves—to think about language from multiple lenses, not just what can be learned from a textbook or a worksheet. Language, Peña-Pincheira says, has rich and deep connotations to history, culture and people. For example, when thinking of the French language, one may think of Paris. But France is so much more than one city: It is a country of culture, personality and dialects, and also a country with a complicated history of colonialism that has led to other areas of the world that also speak French. Teaching language isn’t just about teaching grammar or vocabulary, it is also teaching about the culture’s past, present and future.
“How can the classroom show or be in a place where social movements can also be showcased, where people can bring what they are thinking regarding other human efforts for equity,” asks Peña-Pincheira.
Peña-Pincheira, who defended her dissertation on May 4 and graduated on May 6, will continue guiding the next generation of teachers at Gustavus Adolphus College. Her role will be a blend of education and language, with opportunities to explore transdisciplinary collaborations with students and faculty who have goals of transforming their community.
“The students I have worked with at MSU and those I will work with at Gustavus Adolphus College are amazing,” said Peña-Pincheira. “They see the urgency of their contributions as teachers, as community members. They want to be a contribution. They see how they can do that through teaching. I can help them get there.”