Becoming more authentic in his life was a challenging journey for Jeff Sapp, professor of teacher education, and a fundamental reason why he believes his students engage so well with him.
“The great American educational philosopher, author, social activist, and teacher Maxine Green said only a teacher in search of her or his freedom can inspire others to go in search of their own,” shared Sapp. “Coming out [as gay] was a difficult journey, and my students relate well to how that has changed me. They see that I am tenacious, real, and authentic, as do my husband, my daughter, and my family and friends. That is the cornerstone of what makes a great teacher. If you can touch people in not only their minds, but in their hearts, you are building great relationships.”
At California State University, Dominguez Hills (CSUDH), such dynamic teacher-student relationships are applauded. In Sapp’s case, the respect he has earned for his deep connections with students garnered him the 2018 Lyle E. Gibson Distinguished Teacher Award.
“It’s really been such an honor to be recognized like this. I’m a good fit for Cal State Dominguez Hills. I’ve never been in a place where I felt more at home, and I’ll be here until my career is over. Once a Toro, Always a Toro,” proclaimed Sapp, who teaches credential, curriculum and instruction master’s courses. “We talk about our professional dispositions a lot, and things that elevate the profession of educator. So receiving such an award really elevates all of us in the College of Education. That’s really why this award means so much; it honors all the tireless work our colleagues and students do in educating others.”
I’ve never been in a place where I felt more at home, and I’ll be here until my career is over. Once a Toro, Always a Toro. – Jeff Sapp
Named for CSUDH’s founding university vice president of academic affairs, the Lyle E. Gibson Distinguished Teacher Award recognizes individuals whose teaching is not only exemplary, but also demonstrates an active interest in the progress of students, and seeks new and creative ways to engage them.
Sapp, who received his first faculty award in 2016 for Excellence in Research, Scholarship and Creative Activity, has been teaching for 38 years, the last 12 of which have been at CSUDH. He began with a post in San Jose, Costa Rica, followed by a decade in urban Pennsylvania as a high school math teacher and a middle school math and science teacher. His move to higher education was at Occidental College, and he also taught at Chapman University where he won the 2003 Faculty Award for Excellence in Teaching.
Sapp’s ease of connecting to CSUDH students also stems from his background. Like most of CSUDH’s students, Sapp is a first generation college student. He grew up in abject poverty with three brothers in West Virginia, and education was a way for them to lift themselves out of it. He earned his doctorate in education from West Virginia University, and his dissertation focused on teaching that goes beyond traditional parameters of student-teacher relationships.
“Our students have a desire to elevate their lives through education, and I identify well with that. Some students are getting bachelor’s degrees; some while working full-time with all kinds of family commitments. My students are adding another layer—getting a master’s degree or teaching credential,” he said. “So it’s kind of a deep type of mentoring that we do. I call myself a midwife. My colleagues and I are midwifing new teachers into the education profession.”
Since arriving at CSUDH Sapp has written more than 150 books, chapters, and articles. An accomplished leader in the field of critical multicultural education, his extensive portfolio encompasses scholarly work in anti-racist/anti-bias interventions, peer-reviewed work in gender studies, and research on issues of diversity and equity in schooling.
A “methods junkie,” Sapp enjoys studying and developing best practice teaching methods, and thinking about all the different strategies that engage students at different levels.
“I try to keep it fresh, so I read about different approaches to teaching all the time. How you communicate—how you take on a difficult concept such as something that’s a bit dry and communicate it in an effective way—is something I really enjoy cultivating,” he said. “I recently taught a session on legal issues in education, which can upset people when it has to do with getting sued, or moral and ethical breaches. Sometimes I have to ask the students to monitor their emotions so they can be present during something difficult, but I do it in such a way that students get it. There’s a real science and art to that.”
Sapp has also become a student himself in the use of personal narrative in academic settings.
“Of course you have to make sure that you focus on the academic point of any story,” said Sapp. “When you tell a personal story and have the majority of the class saying ‘Yes, that has happened to me, too,’ that is what I’m looking for. Then you can build on it, all the while making sure it intersects with our college’s philosophy. It is practices like this that make this profession completely riveting.”
For his students, Sapp recommends they look beyond just the what—what they want to teach—and the why, where, or even how. He wants them to know themselves, the teacher, to know “the who.”
“As teachers, I think we seldom ask ‘the who’ question, but I think this self-reflective component is the most important thing. They need to be reflective about who they are,” he said. “So the best advice I can give students and new teachers is to know yourself. Then it will be much more honest and real when you focus on how you can reach a student, how you can form a relationship with your curriculum, and how you can collaborate better with colleagues and others in your work environment.”