What Makes a Great Teacher?
Arts & Sciences faculty are dedicated to student success. Explore the pedagogical approaches that best help students learn
Almost all of us have teachers who continue to live forever at the center of our most vivid and fondest memories of school. These are the ones who didn’t just teach us — they engaged, inspired, motivated, challenged, empathized, counseled and even entertained us. They opened our eyes, expanded our minds, and started us down paths that led directly to our ultimate careers and life goals.
We cherish these favorite teachers from our past — teachers who exemplified excellence in the classroom or laboratory. Many such inspirational teachers are active today in Baylor’s College of Arts & Sciences. What follows are portraits of five of these outstanding educators, as judged by their most discriminating and informed critics — their students.
Show and Tell
Lorin Swint Matthews
Physics is a serious science. Its principles help send astronauts into space and bring them safely back to earth. Dr. Lorin Swint Matthews has worked and taught at the forefront of that science, and she believes she gets the best results when the work is hands-on and fun.
“I enjoy explaining to other people how things work and trying to help them fill in the gaps.”
Dr. Lorin Swint Matthews
“I enjoy explaining to other people how things work and trying to help them fill in the gaps,” she said. “A lot of times to build on knowledge, there has to be something that you’ve experienced, and that’s where it becomes important to bring in real-life examples — demonstrations that you can hold in your hand.”
Matthews, professor of physics and chair of Baylor’s physics department, grew up in Paris, Texas, and earned two physics degrees from Baylor — a bachelor’s degree in 1994 and a Ph.D. in 1998. She worked briefly at Raytheon after getting her doctorate, then returned to Baylor in 2000 as a lecturer in the physics department and the Baylor Interdisciplinary Core. She also began that year as a senior research scientist in Baylor’s Center for Astrophysics, Space Physics and Engineering Research (CASPER). She became a full professor in 2017 and was named physics department chair in 2021.
Over the past 22 years, Matthews has taught the gamut of courses in the department, from introductory General Physics I and II, to doctoral-level Space Plasma Physics. Regardless of the class level, Matthews enjoys bringing physics to life for her students.
“I like the interaction with them. I like preparing the lectures for the introductory courses where there’s lots of demonstrations,” she said. “I like to be able to set something in motion to say, ‘Oh, what is it going to do if I do this instead, or if I poke it that way?’”
She also likes to make it fun. While at home raising twins, Matthews discovered a cache of children’s songs on the National Institutes of Health’s website that she sang to her children. As a result, her students may get the same treatment when asked to stand and sing a song about gravity to the tune of “Jingle Bells.”
“You get these crazy songs into students’ heads, and the information gets stuck there,” she said.
Dr. Truell Hyde, who served as her Ph.D. advisor at Baylor, told Matthews she had “a gift” for teaching, which she says is one of those “intangible” things.
“It’s trying to explain the material in a clear way where you can say, ‘Okay, I’m finding the level of understanding that people have, and then building on that step by step to bring them to the next level of understanding and trying to build on that,’” she said.
In the classroom and the laboratory, Matthews has demonstrated how that approach to teaching is well-suited to physics.
“In physics, it’s all about building this logical framework of how you go from A to B to C, because there’s no quick formula and every problem is going to be different,” she said. “So, finding those patterns and then explaining to other people how to see them is what I try to do.”
Dr. Mojgan Parizi-Robinson understands better than many people how great the gift of education truly is.
“I went to high school in Iran, but that oppressive regime does not like outspoken educated women,” she said. “My parents are both highly educated. I have a younger sister who is a radiologist, and they said, ‘We need to get these girls out of this country.’”
Parizi-Robinson, a senior lecturer in biology, is also the director of the Learning Assistant Program in the biology department, which recruits high-performing students who have done well in biology to help their instructors develop new learning strategies and activities.
“What resonates with my students is that I tell them frequently I don’t know everything…because I want to find those answers along with my students.”
Dr. Mojgan Parizi-Robinson
Her dedication to teaching also played a big part in garnering her the 2022 Collins Outstanding Professor Award, an honor voted on each year by Baylor’s senior class.
“I am constantly critiquing my own teaching techniques, and when I got the call about the Collins Award from the Provost, I thought, ‘Wow, I may be doing something right,’” she said.
Parizi-Robinson’s journey to Baylor and the Collins Award began in Norman, Oklahoma, where her family moved after leaving Iran. She earned three degrees at the University of Oklahoma –– a bachelor’s in zoology, a master’s in botany, and a Ph.D. in cell and neurobiology. She completed two postdoctoral fellowships at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, then moved to Waco with her physician husband. Soon after joining Baylor’s biology faculty in 2011, she established a course in human anatomy.
In addition to teaching anatomy to more than 150 students every semester, she currently teaches a course in pedagogy –– the method and practice of teaching –– to first-time learning assistants, and occasionally adds an introductory biology course to her teaching load.
As a teacher, Parizi-Robinson rejects the pedagogical style she grew up with that focuses on students who are considered natural achievers.
“There’s that group who’s going to do well no matter how you teach, but they’re not why I’m here,” she said. “I’m here to reach those students who don’t want to talk to me, don’t want to interact. Sometimes I’m successful, and sometimes I’m not, but I’m always motivated.”
Humility is a big reason Parizi-Robinson is able to connect with her students, especially the ones who may be struggling.
“What resonates with my students is that I tell them frequently I don’t know everything,” she said. “In fact, I like it that I don’t know everything, because I want to find those answers along with my students.”
Most of Parizi-Robinson’s students are juniors or seniors, and many are preparing for careers in medicine or physical therapy. Some will tell her they don’t know what they plan to do after getting their undergraduate degree, and she encourages them to stay in her class, despite that uncertainty.
“What I tell them is that this course in anatomy tells you about your body — the Lord’s creation — and will hopefully make you wonder, whether you’re going to use that knowledge in medical school or in your personal life with your own health,” she said.
Whether she’s lecturing or leading a lab, Parizi-Robinson likes to “flip” the focus and encourage her students to interact, regardless of the outcome.
“I say to them, ‘This is a safe space. Make your mistakes here, because at the end of the day nobody is going to remember that you got this wrong. Let’s make these mistakes together –– and now –– so you won’t make those mistakes later on an exam.’”
Driven to Teach
If she had stayed on the path to what she originally wanted to do, Dr. Mia Moody-Ramirez would not be in Waco teaching in Baylor’s Department of Journalism, Public Relations and New Media. She’d be living in Manhattan and editing a fashion magazine. But her drive to build her journalism skills put her in the classroom, where she’s now helping others reach their potential.
“It is a calling for me. I didn’t set out to become a teacher, but after teaching my first class as a Baylor grad student I was immediately drawn to it,” she said.
“I think it is important to help students explore their gifts and land upon a suitable career path.”
Dr. Mia Moody-Ramirez
Moody-Ramirez grew up in Bryan, Texas, and got her bachelor’s degree in journalism at Texas A&M University while also working at Bryan-College Station’s daily newspaper, The Eagle. She moved to Waco to report for the Waco Tribune-Herald, and while working there she completed two master’s degrees at Baylor –– one in educational psychology, the other in journalism.
“That was when I discovered my true passion and true calling was teaching,” she said. “I thought it would lead to a position as an editor for a magazine or something like that.”
Instead, she is helping students reach their goals, whatever they may be.
“I meet students where they are in their life journey,” she said. “I think it is important to help students explore their gifts and land upon a suitable career path.”
Moody-Ramirez believes that journalism students are going to be skilled in different areas, whether that is making presentations, writing, editing or taking photographs, but said there are more opportunities for career growth if they can develop multiple skills.
“So, we try to work with students where they are and help bring them along and improve skills in certain areas,” she said.
As it turns out, Moody-Ramirez comes by her passion for teaching naturally.
“Both of my parents were teachers,” she said. “My dad taught auto mechanics at my high school, and Mom taught third grade. They were my first favorite teachers, and they used almost every opportunity as a teachable moment.”
Moody-Ramirez has taught numerous journalism courses during her time at Baylor but when she served as department chair for a number of years, she could fit only one course into her schedule.
“It was a class I teach on gender, race and media, and that’s a topic that I’m truly passionate about,” she said. “I’ve taught it for about eight years, and while at first it was really hard for us to fill the class, it’s now a popular class and we usually have people on the waiting list.”
In addition to teaching, Moody-Ramirez also enjoys mentoring her students as well as collaborating with them in research –– usually focusing on topics of social media and the representation of women, minorities and underrepresented populations.
“In the summer of 2022 I wrote a research paper with two students –– one graduate student and one undergraduate student –– about cultural appropriation and how that topic is represented in memes,” she said. “The two students went on to present that paper at a conference, and I’m sure we will submit it to a journal.”
In 2021, Moody-Ramirez was named Baylor’s Cornelia Marschall Smith Professor of the Year. The annual award is given by the University to a faculty member “who makes a superlative contribution to the learning environment at Baylor.”
“That was such a huge honor to be among the other individuals who won that award,” she said. “Those are some of the people I admire at Baylor.”
A Heart for Students
Some of the hundreds of students taught by Dr. David Moseman over the years will no doubt do as he did and go on to divinity school, where they will prepare to be pastors or theologians or teachers. Others may just be passing through his classes to satisfy a Baylor degree requirement. Regardless of their plans, he will give his students the best he has to offer.
“I love working with [my students] and…getting to be a part of their journeys in life and their walks with God.”
Dr. David Moseman
“My teaching philosophy is that students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” Moseman said. “Though that saying is not original with me, it resonates with a tenet of my faith, which is that humans are created in the image of God. I seek to live that out in every facet of my life, and needless to say, it affects how I teach.”
Moseman said that his students frequently comment in their course evaluations about how quickly he learns their names.
“How could I not? They are created in the image of God and through Jesus Christ are restored to that image,” he said. “It’s why I bless them at the end of class, and why I have lunch with them frequently. I love my students, and I love working with them and getting to know them and getting to be a part of their journeys in life and their walks with God.”
Moseman earned a bachelor’s degree in English at the University of Georgia, then added a Master of Divinity at Southern Seminary and a Ph.D. in religion with an emphasis in Old Testament at Baylor. He said he sought his Ph.D. in response to a call from God.
“I thank God that God called me to teach because I love teaching and investing in the lives of students,” he said.
At Baylor, Moseman is a senior lecturer in religion, and has been a member of the faculty since 2007. He has taught the courses Christian Heritage and Introduction to Scriptures — both required for all Baylor students — as well as the courses Hebrew and Former Prophets, and a Senior Seminar. In recent years, he’s also been a faculty leader on mission trips to Nicaragua and Uganda taken by students in Baylor’s Christian Pre-health Fellowship.
Now in his 16th year at Baylor, Moseman said it is evident that there is more diversity but less biblical knowledge among students than there once was, and that impacts how he teaches.
“You can no longer assume that students have a biblical background, so I intentionally define terms and concepts,” he said. “I always hope that if I say something they don’t understand that we have enough of a relationship that they feel comfortable to let me know. Teaching them through what I say and do, through who I am, is hopefully touching students’ lives and affecting their walks with God. That is the focus of my ministry at Baylor.”
The care and concern Moseman maintains for his students and their life journeys has obviously struck a chord with them because, in 2020, he was chosen as the Collins Outstanding Professor of the Year by Baylor’s senior class.
“That was quite an honor, and I was very thankful for that very kind affirmation that comes from seniors,” Moseman said. “God blesses me richly.”
Chemistry and the Better Life
The profile of Dr. Paul Zinke on the Baylor University website states that he teaches organic chemistry. But he also teaches about life — drawing from his own experience working in the pharmaceutical industry, as well as sharing lessons learned from mentors along the way with his students.
“The job that Baylor hires you for is to come in and teach… but if you’re up for it, the challenge that you can also present yourself with is — how do I have a positive impact on students’ lives?”
Dr. Paul Zinke
Zinke, a senior lecturer in chemistry, joined the Baylor faculty in 2014, and it didn’t take him long to connect with students. Seven years after arriving on campus, he received the Collins Outstanding Professor Award, decided on by a vote of the 2021 Senior Class at Baylor.
“I feel very honored to win the Collins Award,” Zinke said. “I didn’t expect it, and I don’t feel like I’m a standout as a teacher per se. I think that perhaps the students voted for me because I like to play a role in their lives to make a positive impact.”
Zinke earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemistry from East Texas State University (now Texas A&M-Commerce) and added a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Colorado at Boulder. From there, he began a career at Novartis, a pharmaceutical company, and Alcon, which specializes in eye care products. He took part in projects that put drugs on the market designed to benefit people’s lives, including several drugs that treat glaucoma.
“For 25 years in the pharmaceutical industry, I didn’t really ever think I would be teaching full time,” Zinke said. “I didn’t discount it, but I always thought I would be somewhere in the corporate world.”
Zinke wasn’t a stranger to academia before coming to Baylor. He had previously taught labs as a graduate student and night classes at the University of Texas at Arlington. And between working at Alcon and coming to Baylor, he taught for one year at Paschal High School in Fort Worth.
From his school days, Zinke has fond memories of mentors who taught him “that you have to really try to be a stand-up person — the person you want your students to be,” he said. “You become the role model for them when you do that.”
For Zinke, being a role model begins with working to learn all the names in classes of 100 students and more. And it continues when students come in after class to ask advice about their careers.
“My time in Big Pharma taught me different ways to look at things and how to talk to students about being in the corporate world,” he said. “You’re sharing with them both your college education and your experiences.”
In the classroom Zinke uses the Socratic method, which involves introducing a concept and then drawing students into a conversation about it.
“I’ll stop and ask them questions, such as, ‘How did this happen? What’s going on? What do you think?’ Because if you just lecture straight through, they’ll often get bored,” he said.
Zinke also uses what he calls the “Please try as I taught you” concept.
“In other words, now you try to do it, and then we’re going to do it together,” he said.
Zinke said it’s all part of his belief that teaching is beyond what is outlined in a catalogue or a syllabus
“This job that Baylor hires you for is to come in and teach, say, four classes of chemistry, and to provide for each course to be fair and of high quality,” he said. “But if you’re up for it, the challenge that you can also present yourself with is — how do I have a positive impact on students’ lives?”