One of her graduating students described her as “entertaining,” saying she “makes even the most boring lectures engaging,” and Rachel Riley, the 2021 Teacher of the Year at Abilene Christian University, found that particularly striking because she can relate.
“I enjoy a good dose of humor in all things,” Riley said. “If it’s not fun, I don’t want to do it. One of the main tasks of any job is making things fun. So I loved hearing that.”
Riley, a college associate professor in the Department of Psychology, has been bringing fun and engagement to ACU students for 13 years. She was recognized at May Commencement as Teacher of the Year, an honor voted on by the graduating class of seniors.
“I was genuinely surprised to find out that I had won and overwhelmed while listening to what students had written in their nominations,” she said.
In addition to her ability to engage students in lectures, a theme in many of the senior nominations was caring about students both inside and outside of the classroom. For Riley, that’s a natural byproduct of the subject she’s teaching, her educational philosophy and the example set by her own teachers.
“I want them to get the big picture,” she said. “Until they hit college, students are trained to produce, produce, produce. Make good grades; make this project look great. But so much of psychology is applicable in everyday life. I want what I teach to resonate when they run into something they can’t figure out later in life. It takes students a while to relax into the idea of learning for learning’s sake – not because it’s on a test but because it might be important later in life.”
Riley’s appreciation for learning and teaching goes back to mentors she had in her early career teaching at Lubbock Christian University, as well as her undergraduate professors at ACU, such as the late Dr. Charles Trevathan, who taught sociology and social work and was named Teacher of the Year in 2001.
“He would state things unapologetically, and he would welcome debate, especially if you had read and prepared. If you hadn’t, he’d skewer you and make no apologies for that either,” she said. “But he did it in a way that made you want to prepare and want to be able to follow along. Not only his teaching style but learning from him in and out of class and seeing how hospitable he and [his wife] Phyllis were seemed like a great way to interact, regardless of profession.”
That interaction of hospitality is fully embraced by Riley, as she and her husband have hosted thousands of students at their renovated 1940s farmhouse and land near campus, dubbed “The Acre.” And several senior psychology students noted the significance of personal letters Riley wrote to each of them upon graduation.
Even after a difficult and challenging college year, she said her love for her job is evident every May when she senses the sadness of concluding the school year.
“It’s a remarkable thing to love your job so much that you really mourn when the school year is over,” Riley said. “And it’s an incredible thing to say, with enthusiasm, about what you do for a living: ‘I love this.’ I’m so glad that students recognize that and feel loved.”
— Wendy Kilmer
May 13, 2021