“The day I got the job at the college was the best day of my life,” adjunct professor Catherine Schrag said to a classroom of students on the first day of the 2019 spring semester. Her bright smile and loud, excited voice proved the words to be true. She went on to say that working at the college had been a dream of hers that finally became a reality ten years ago.
“I’m kind of a crazy person,” Schrag said jokingly. “I’m all over the place. I don’t try to be this very proper professor. I’m just myself. I want my classroom to be a fun place to be. I think that learning should be fun: I don’t think it should be a snore fest. I’ll be falling asleep myself if it’s like that.”
Schrag teaches public speaking classes in the forms of Intercultural Communications and Interpersonal Communications. She starts off each semester in a similar way: after poring over the roster for names she may recognize before class begins, she’ll spend the entire class period attempting to get to know her students as well as learn their names. Get-to-know-you activities don’t stop there; for the next few days, the students share about themselves both in front of the class and in groups. Throughout the semester, nearly every day involves some sort of group discussion, video or presentation. Aside from being a more lighthearted way to learn, this style of teaching serves a purpose.
“The goal of [a communications class] is that you become a more confident communicator, and the best way to do that is through practice,” Schrag said. “It’s just like any hands-on class, whether you’re in a cooking class or a gym class. If you’re in a cooking class and you never cook, and your professor just shows you what to do: it’s much different than actually having you make the meal. Just think of it like you’re making the meal every time you come to class. By the end, you’re a pro.”
Taylen Williams, freshman, is enrolled in Schrag’s Intercultural Communications class this semester. Although she’s currently undecided in her major, Williams has found the class, as well as Schrag’s demeanor, culturally inspiring.
“I absolutely love Schrag as a teacher,” Williams said. “She is so energetic and truly passionate about teaching. What’s unique about Schrag is that she attempts to make a more personal connection with her students. She genuinely cares about her job — or, as she says, her dream — and she’s very welcoming toward students with questions. Schrag’s class has taught me a lot about culture so far and I can’t wait to learn more in hopes that I may, one day, find myself in a cultural field.”
While Schrag’s joyful attitude is appreciated by most students, it begs the question: are there ever days where she doesn’t feel so energized?
“The days I come in feeling negative are the days where I feel like that day’s lecture might be boring or I didn’t get all of my lesson prep done,” Schrag said. “But, even if I do come in with that low energy, I just love coming to the classroom so much — if you put me around people, I’ll always get more energized. There’s actually a saying, that ‘I teach for free and it’s the grading I get paid for.’ Grading is not fun, but teaching is the wonderful part.”
There’s more to Schrag’s bubbly personality than her natural disposition, though. After graduating from high school, she immigrated to the United States from Jamaica. This isn’t rare; many Jamaican students looking to attend college will travel to the United States, Europe or Canada for better universities and opportunities. The cultural differences between the United States and Jamaica lend Schrag a unique, carefree nature. The main difference, she said, is something as simple as time: while U.S. citizens encourage being on time or early, Jamaican culture normalizes being hours late to events or parties. Although these differences brought difficulties at first, Schrag said she has been in America for so long that she’s nearly fully adjusted.
“I’ve been here for so long, so I’m really more Kansan,” Schrag said. “But then again, you can’t really take the Jamaican out. My sense of time is really Caribbean and very laid back. My sense of relationships is also very important to me: if I could have a hundred people at my house, I’d be happy. I really don’t stress out about things, I really am a believer that things will work out, and I think that’s very culturally based.”
Schrag’s emphasis on relationships comes through with her students as well. At the end of the semester, Schrag writes a letter to her students which often includes this mantra, “I cared about you before you started the class, I care about you while you’re in the class and I’ll care about you after you leave.”
“When my students see that I care about them and want them to succeed, I think they can relate to me and that brings out the best in them,” Schrag said. “I think of it like you are my customers and I’m here for you. It’s my job to give you the best of myself and really make the material engaging. Once I meet you and I make that connection, you’re in. It’s almost like you’re my kid.”
This attitude may contribute to one of her more eccentric practices: if a student is absent for two days, she and the class will call them on the phone comically asking them to return. After three days, Schrag may drop by the student’s other classrooms. After four days, she joked, a house visit may be in order. This is more joke than reality, though, and serves a purpose as well.
“It’s really not to freak out students,” Schrag said. “I do think that, especially with first-time college students, it’s easy to get into habit of missing class. Getting into that pattern can happen pretty quickly for people, and then they feel like they’ve missed too much, and they’re embarrassed to come back. I want them to know that they’ll always be welcome, and I’ll be excited to see them.”
Despite this possibly unwanted pressure to come to class, most students seem open to Schrag’s unconventional teaching methods. Williams encourages any student needing a public speaking credit to enroll in Schrag’s courses.
Williams said, “I would absolutely recommend Schrag’s class to anybody attending the college. Her smile is contagious, and she is truly passionate about teaching, which makes the class so much more enjoyable. She deserves to be talked about.”