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  November 20, 2000

Outstanding TAs Build Future
Teaching Careers on Philosophy of Caring

They're gifted and creative and they care.

That's the word - according to their past and present UConn faculty advisors - on Michelle Pulaski and Jason Molitierno.

The two are recipients of this year's Outstanding Teaching Assistant Awards, presented earlier this year by the Institute for Teaching and Learning.

Pulaski is now a full-time faculty member in the English and Communications Department at Pace University in Pleasantville, N.Y., and this semester Molitierno is teaching MATH 115, a Calculus 1 course on the Storrs campus. Most of his students are freshmen with a solid algebra background.

"Michelle has great technical skills, great creativity and the ability to pull things from different areas and put them together in new and different ways," said Ross Buck, a professor of communicatio n sciences who served as Pulaski's master's and Ph.D. advisor.

For Molitierno's advisor Michael Neumann, a professor of mathematics, the word "care" may be small, but it has big implications.

"When you look at the word care, it is the most direct and positive statement that someone could write," said Neumann. Molitierno wrote the word, Neumann said, on his teaching application: "He wrote a wonderful statement that summarizes what a good teacher is all about. In his statement, he used the word care. It was a simple, sincere expression and I was impressed."

As a professor at Pace University, Pulaski is teaching communications classes, serving on numerous committees, advising undergraduates, working on an internship program and helping develop the curriculum for a newly formalized major in communications.

"I'm pleased to have been given so much responsibility as a junior faculty member," said Pulaski in a telephone interview.

She is also organizing an event called "Connections in Communications" that will bring together undergraduate majors and professionals in the field of communications for a discussion on careers.

"What I enjoyed most about teaching communications courses at UConn was interacting with students," said Pulaski. "I thoroughly enjoyed meeting with my students both inside and outside the classroom."

Especially rewarding to her, she said, was seeing her students achieve their goals, whether that was to advance their knowledge of new communications technologies or to overcome a fear of public speaking.

"I've kept in contact with many of my UConn students over the past year," she added. "They often update me via e-mail on their current classes and career accomplishments."

Pulaski, who grew up in Cheshire, Conn., earned a B.A. from Villanova University and a master's in communication sciences from UConn. She expects to receive her Ph.D. in communication sciences from UConn by year-end.

Right now, she's content living her dream.

Said Pulaski: "One of my main motivators in the UConn graduate program was the possibility of landing a job at a university that would allow me to teach a great deal. I've found that at Pace. The university has actually exceeded my expectations of a first job in terms of my responsibilities. I really enjoy the freedoms Pace has allowed me in choosing my courses."

For Molitierno, the decision to become a teacher came in his freshman year at Connecticut College in New London, where he was a math major. His minor was American history.

He spent a term teaching seventh grade math and geography at a middle school in New London. Then in January 1997, he arrived on the Storrs campus to pursue graduate studies.

"I've known all my life that I would do something in math," said Molitierno. "I've always enjoyed interacting with people and so I decided to become a teacher."

As a teaching assistant at UConn, Molitierno has taught a variety of courses, ranging from algebra to calculus to linear algebra.

A native of Watertown, Conn., his goal is to teach full-time at the college level, preferably at an institution in Connecticut. He expects to receive a Ph.D. in mathematics in May.

His advice to UConn students exemplifies a caring philosophy.

"I tell them to make sure they do all their assigned homework," said Molitierno. "I also tell them to see me as soon as they realize they're having trouble. I tell them, 'don't put it off because the situation will only get worse.'"

Both Pulaski and Molitierno give good grades to the resources provided them as teaching assistants at UConn.

Support and resources, they said, include mentorships with professors, workshops through the Institute for Teaching and Learning, input from other graduate students, and respect from faculty.

"Being told that you're doing a good job by coordinators and the department head means a great deal, " said Molitierno. "It reflects that good teaching by teaching assistants is being noticed."

He also noted that the atmosphere among peers makes it easy to discuss pedagogical issues with one another.

Pulaski is convinced her teaching experience at UConn landed her the job at Pace University.

"Rarely does a Ph.D. come out of a program with five years of teaching experience," she said. "So I believe UConn offered me a great opportunity in terms of marketing myself. Pace is considered a teaching institution verses a research institution, although both are stressed, so the teaching qualifications of a job candidate are extremely important."

Both Pulaski and Molitierno appear to be well on their way to meaningful and successful careers that will touch many lives in the years ahead.

The two might well agree with CBS newsman Dan Rather's assessment of a good teacher: "The dream begins with a teacher who believes in you, who tugs and pushes and leads you to the next plateau, sometimes poking you with a sharp stick called truth."

Claudia G. Chamberlain