Students, colleagues, university recognize Debbie Folkerts for excellence in teaching at Auburn

Published: November 03, 2014
Updated: November 04, 2014
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Encouraging, inspiring, a veteran entertainer and having no equal – these are ways Debbie R. Folkerts is described by her students and colleagues.

Folkerts is one of the recipients of Auburn University's 2014 Gerald and Emily Leischuck Endowed Presidential Award for Excellence in Teaching, which honors effective and innovative teaching methods and a continuing commitment to student success.

She says she has enjoyed her role as a teacher since beginning at Auburn University in 1986 simply because teaching is what she likes to do.

Since earning her bachelor's and master's degrees in zoology at Auburn University and her doctoral degree in entomology at the University of Georgia, Folkerts has taught 17 different courses in Auburn's Department of Biological Sciences.

"Teaching has to be all about the students," Folkerts said. "You have to forget about your own image and your own accomplishments. I don't accomplish anything if the students don't pick up what I say and get inspired and excited. It is all about what they are getting out of it."

Best known for her teaching methods, such as bringing live animals to class, Folkerts expresses her love for biology and her desire to share it with her students through interaction. She recognizes that when students tangibly connect with a subject, the learning process becomes more natural and students are able to better understand and store the knowledge they gain. Ultimately, her goal is to engage students in the learning process, and getting to know her students has made this task easier.

"A student will transform almost immediately if you know their name," said Folkerts. "All of a sudden I am not just a television screen, but there is real interaction. They become more responsible and more eager to learn.  I think my knowing their name makes them feel that I am interested in them, and you can learn better from someone who is interested in you."

Folkerts has had many proud moments when talking with former students about the difference she has made in their lives.

"Former students have told me that what they learned helped them in their future endeavors," said Folkerts. "Some have even told me after being in my class that they decided to become teachers. Nothing makes me more proud than that. On the one hand it thrills me to think that somebody paid enough attention for me to have an influence on them. On the other hand it scares me a bit; if I am actually influencing people's choices and life direction, I had better be very serious about it. It makes me want to do a good job."

While teaching has become a passion for Folkerts, her love for the environment has not been forgotten. In her classes, she emphasizes the study of the natural world and the importance of being good stewards of the environment.

"I think I have an underlying mission in all of my teaching that is an environmental message," Folkerts said. "We are taking up too much of the world, and we are not going to have our fellow inhabitants for much longer if we don't do something about it. The first step is for my students to know what's out there in nature: plants, animals and other organisms we share this planet with. Once they know, they will begin to understand the importance of all the parts being there in a healthy community. So I guess that's my overall mission: Let's all work on saving the earth together."

Folkerts credits her students, teachers and colleagues as her inspiration, but primarily her late husband's influence. Folkerts said his fairness, confidence and desire to put the student first has made him the best teacher she ever had.

Folkerts previously received the College of Sciences and Mathematics' Outstanding Teaching Award and the Alumni Association Undergraduate Teaching Excellence Award. She was named the Honors College Teacher of the Year three times, most recently in 2012.

This year, Folkerts received the Excellence in Teaching award along with fellow associate professor Stuart Loch.

Realizing tangible rewards for teaching are not as prevalent as those for research endeavors, Folkerts finds awards are important encouragements for constant improvement.

"We, as teachers, look to our students for validation of our work and for encouragement to improve." Folkerts said. "This award shows that others recognize the value of our work as teachers and it highlights Auburn University as an institution that emphasizes teaching as its number one mission."

Beyond her role as a teacher, Folkerts focuses her research on the biology and conservation of rare species, especially those found in southeastern pitcher plant bogs where she studies plant and arthropod interactions and documents the diversity and decline of endemic bog species.

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