Dr. Loleen Berdahl (PhD) is now executive director of USask’s Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy. (Photo: Submitted)

Berdahl passionate about teaching and reaching students

It should come as no surprise that Dr. Loleen Berdahl (PhD) was ahead of the curve when the global pandemic struck.

After all, for more than a decade at the University of Saskatchewan (USask), Berdahl has been leading by example, emphasizing innovation and inspiration to support students.

“Being dedicated to taking risks in the classroom is so important,” said Berdahl, who joined a select list of prestigious professors when she was named USask’s newest Master Teacher Award recipient during virtual fall convocation celebrations. “Having students get their hands dirty with ideas and issues, get into the weeds a bit, is so rewarding. What is interesting about teaching is that when you do those things, they don’t always work, so there is risk. But when they do work, it feels incredible.”

A year ago, Berdahl embraced remote teaching and learning, to help students earn a bachelor’s degree in political studies completely online. While she didn’t have a pandemic premonition, her preparation proved perfect timing when the university closed on-campus classes due to COVID-19 health and safety precautions and moved to remote learning to complete the 2020 winter term and start the 2020/21 academic year.

“In the last academic year, I did all my teaching online, so now I look back and I think I was very lucky,” said Berdahl, the former head of the Department of Political Studies, who took over as executive director of the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at USask on Oct. 1. “When I started as department head in political studies, I really wanted us to expand our online offerings so that our full three-year BA, as well as two of our certificates, could be fully available online. As a leader, I felt I couldn’t ask everyone else to teach online if I wasn’t doing the same.”

It’s that leadership, willingness to adapt, and inspiration to be innovative, that has earned Berdahl awards and accolades on campus and across the country. She received the 2012 Provost’s Award for Outstanding New Teacher at USask, the 2014 Provost’s Award for Outstanding Teaching in the College of Arts and Science, and the 2015 College of Arts and Science Teaching Excellence Award.

In 2019, she earned the Canadian Political Science Association’s Teaching Excellence Award, her discipline’s most prestigious national teaching honour. Now, Berdahl joins some of her favourite colleagues as winner of the Master Teacher Award, from Professor Vince Bruni-Bossio, Dr. Chelsea Willness (PhD) and Dr. Keith Willoughby (PhD), to the late Dr. Joe Garcea (PhD), a revered political studies professor who tragically passed away in November.

“When I look at the list of who has won the Master Teacher Award, I have so much respect for those incredible individuals,” said Berdahl, who grew up in Saskatoon and earned her bachelor’s degree at USask before moving to Calgary for her PhD. “What’s amazing when I look at the winners list is that they are all people who are very dedicated to students and dedicated to taking risks in teaching. So this is just such a great career honour.”

So what makes a great teacher? For Berdahl, the answer is clear.

“I think caring about students and having an appreciation of how one’s discipline matters to society and how it matters to students and what they are going to do with their life, is so important,” said Berdahl, who began her career working for the non-profit Canada West Foundation for 10 years before joining USask in 2008. “I find the responsibility of training the next generation very motivating. And the fact that we have the types of students that we do is what inspires me.”

As she shifts from the virtual classroom to the boardroom, taking on the senior leadership role with JSGS, Berdahl has some advice for both students and young faculty members. For Berdahl, the importance of work-life balance has been critical to her success, both professionally and personally.

“One of the things that we can do as teachers and as instructors and as faculty is to be role models for our students and for our junior colleagues,” said Berdahl, whose interests include reading, running, and cycling with her twin daughters and her husband.

 “I always like to say to my students, the best learning comes when you are rested and well-fed and exercising. I often think my best ideas come when I am running or cycling and it just floats to my mind and seems so obvious, and if I were staring at my computer, it never would have come. So, I am a big proponent of work-life balance.”

While her next five years will primarily focus on senior leadership responsibilities with JSGS, Berdahl does hope to find ways to continue to contribute in the classroom.

“I will try to look at ways where I can, not necessarily be the instructor of record, but where I can still be involved in courses,” said Berdahl, who has co-written four books and conducted an extensive research program. “I don’t think it’s possible to keep me out of the classroom for very long.” 

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