For Love of the Game: Award-winning prof preaches passion for phys ed

Skills: Writing

Written for the UAlberta Department of Secondary Education
January 26, 2015

It’s easy to assume that teaching comes naturally to David Chorney. Throughout his career, he’s been decorated with multiple teaching awards as a grad student and an instructor, and last year, he received the Rutherford Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, the most prestigious teaching award the University of Alberta offers. As one of the few Rutherford recipients within the Department of Secondary Education, Chorney acknowledges that the recognition is an incredible honour, but knows that such awards come with expectations attached.

“You’re only as good as the last class you teach. You’re only as good as the last group of students that come through,” Chorney says.

Chorney has an intense passion for what he does, which is obvious both from the way he speaks about teaching and from the amount of time he’s dedicated to building personal connections with his students. The physical education veteran has been teaching in some form or another for half his life, and just as much time studying how to excel at it.

Chorney grew up on a farm north of the small town of Clair, Saskatchewan and went to school in the nearby village of Quill Lake. Upon graduation, he attended the University of Saskatchewan to earn his Bachelor of Education with a physical education major, then went on to teach in his home province throughout the 90s. In 1998 he moved west to study his Master’s in Secondary Education at the University of Alberta. For nearly a decade after, his career would take him on a tour of the two provinces and three universities as he completed his MEd and PhD at the U of A while working at the University of Lethbridge and the University of Regina, before finally joining the department of Secondary Education in 2007.

Despite the years he’s spent in the classroom, both as a student and a teacher, Chorney retains his humility, something that’s helped him to connect with his students. When asked about his formula for success, he’s thoughtful and methodical in his answer, and says he’s careful not to let his own wisdom upstage the individual perspectives of those he’s teaching.

“I have no problem with admitting I have lots to learn yet. When I teach my students, my experience and knowledge bode well for me, but I realize that every student is different. He or she has their own stories and backgrounds and see things through their own lens, and with my future Phys Ed teachers, I see myself as being one of them 20 years ago.”

Putting himself in the position of his students like this helps him ask the important questions that determine their own success: “Am I motivated to be here? Am I invested in what he’s saying? Do I really want to be a teacher of phys ed because of this class?” Maintaining this perspective is critical to ensuring that his students are invested and excelling at whatever their goals may be, but Chorney says that it’s key for him to allow his students to reach their own conclusions. Having taught in countless different environments, he knows there’s never one “right” answer for every person. Instead, teaching means giving students the tools they need to find their own solutions while fostering a sense of curiosity and inquiry.

“I don’t apologize for leaving them asking more questions than providing them with answers. It’s a fine line between teaching them things and requiring them to think for themselves, and to empower them to go beyond my class for themselves,” Chorney says.

His methods bear their own challenges, too, as not every student is ready to approach their studies in this way. Chorney shares a story of a course evaluation where a student complained that the professor asked too many questions.

“I thought, did I miss that student? Could I have told them something more? Then I realize I can never tell them all they need to know. I certainly don’t apologize at a postsecondary level when I make my students think, and ask questions of them.”

Even so, it can be difficult not to take comments like these to heart. Chorney says that encouraging open communication and input from his students is an essential part of improving his abilities, and now, he conducts informal evaluations midway through his courses, polling students on what they may or may not like about his teaching methods. And he stresses that effective instructors need to be willing to accept whatever feedback they may receive.

“You have to be open to critique, and willing to take that step to allow the critique to be made. If you’re scared of what students say about you, that says a lot too. What are you scared of?” he asks. “If you want to get better, be ready for what the answer may be. You may be doing better than you think you’re doing, but if you don’t ask the question, you never know.”

Chorney tries to encourage this kind of self-reflection in those he teaches as well. Remembering the position he was in as a student, he knows what it means to love what you do. In turn, he hopes that’s what fuels his students to excel and become the same kind of passionate role model for their future students as he is for them. He says that bringing this kind of attitude to the classroom is especially critical in physical education, which can have a reputation for being “easy.”

“Sometimes students are in it for the wrong reasons … They perceive it as a conduit to coaching. Or they couldn’t get into science, or language arts, or social studies, so they think maybe they’ll get into phys ed.” But in Chorney’s own experience, he knows that passion leads to success: students who are invested in physical education are among the highest academic achievers in the entire faculty.

Far beyond the syllabus, the takeaway from Chorney’s classes is to examine the kind of person you want to become. He says it’s the attitude that an individual brings to the classroom that defines one’s success, reputation, and ultimately, the desire to continue.

“One of the things we never forget — as students who want to be teachers, or myself as teacher of teachers — is what a privileged position we have to teach others. I really do think that teaching is a calling. You should want to do it, but you should want to do it well. And to do it well takes hard work. I believe that people can be natural teachers. Others can improve their teaching. But you have to be humble, because you’re never perfect.”

It’s clear that Chorney practices what he preaches. Walking through the Education building atrium, you can see Chorney’s photo displayed alongside his fellow teaching award recipients. More than anything, it’s a constant reminder to continue to strive for excellence.

“Winning an award is great, having people tell you you’re awesome is great. But if I didn’t win an award, how bad would I feel? Would it change who I am? The answer is no. I’ll still strive to be the best I can,” he pauses, considering the path he’s followed to get here here. “Every group of learners is different. Every term, I’m different. You always learn more. You learn from living. You learn from teaching. You learn from your own kids. You learn from technology. Everything.”