Hannah Middleton reached a crossroads during her sophomore year at UNCP. She began questioning whether a career in teaching was in her future.
“I began having doubts about whether teaching was for me. I was actually about to talk to my advisor about getting out of the teaching program altogether,” she said.
After taking Dr. Laura Staal’s Foundations of Reading course, Middleton rediscovered her passion. Rejuvenated, she went on to earn her degree and is weeks away from completing her first year as a special education teacher in Robeson County.
Middleton is among a long list of former students inspired by Staal–this year’s recipient of the UNC Board of Governors Award for Excellence in Teaching. Each year, one faculty member from each of the UNC System’s institutions is named for the award. Staal will be recognized at spring commencement.
A professor of reading, Dr. Staal has been a fixture in the School of Education for the past 14 years. With each lesson, Staal strives to encourage a love for teaching reading in her students through various teaching methods. Her approach enlivens the classroom and energizes her students.
“For me, teaching starts with passion,” she said. “I truly love the art of teaching. My students are very important to me, which is why I’m committed to listening to their voices and making changes, if needed, in the way I teach. Ultimately, it is the passion and care that I bring to my teaching that matters.”
Staal infuses personal stories into her lessons. Stories about her journey from teaching in elementary school classrooms to graduate school then to higher education. Students know about her varied teaching experiences from states all across the country to include Michigan, California, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado and Florida. They understand her love of fostering children, which her family has been doing for more than 20 years–as four of her children are adopted from the foster care system. And, they often hear stories about her husband, Mark, a retired United States Air Force colonel. She has found her students to be more engaging once a bond is formed.
“Making connections is important. I incorporate activities to build rapport with my students on the first day of class and listen to their stories to make a connection from their life to what we are learning.”
Another integral part of Staal’s repertoire is service-learning–through which she uses theory, research, and techniques and applies them in classroom settings. She began a service-learning literacy partnership at Prospect Elementary School eight years ago and recently formed a similar project at Magnolia Elementary.
Her students are provided with authentic teaching and learning experiences through literacy lessons and activities done with various grade levels. Staal has also worked to acquire funding for books and resources for the community school partners. Service-learning projects, she says, have been the highlight of her teaching career in higher education.
“Service-learning has inspired everything that I do here at UNCP,” she noted.
It was the hands-on experience and the time she spent at Prospect Elementary School that helped rekindle Middleton’s passion for teaching.
“Dr. Staal connects with students on a personal level. She cares about student growth as well as personal growth, which impacts student participation. The experience she gives her students is why I decided to stay in the education program,” Middleton said.
Like Middleton, Staal, too, was inspired by her college professors. Her peers' selection for such a prestigious award further solidifies her calling to educate future generations of educators.
“This is such an honor. It’s very humbling. Truly, words cannot express what it means to be a recipient of this award. This award belongs to all of the people in my life, including my family and amazing students and colleagues at UNCP.”