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Y News Insider: What it's really like to teach at Education Week

The third week of August is kind of like a vacation week at BYU. August Commencement is behind us, the new freshmen won't show up for another week and it's still two weeks from the start of Fall Semester.

But for many professors at BYU, this 'vacation' week isn't a break from classes at all. Instead of taking time away, they stay on campus and teach at Education Week, one of the largest continuing education programs of its kind. Each year, faculty contribute to the conference's more than 1,000 classes on topics ranging from religion, to science, history, family relations and more. 

Y News talked to a handful of these faculty members to get a behind-the-scenes perspective on how they prepare for Education Week (sometimes decades in advance) and what the teaching experience is really like (much different than a university course). 

As for why they return year after year, the answer was unanimous: the participants. Whether it's a meaningful conversation after class, or simply a heartfelt thank you, it's clear the interactions with Education Week participants drive professors' excitement for the conference. Despite alluring sandy beaches, in the end, these faculty members say they wouldn't be anywhere else. 

Donald Parry, Humanities: ‘It’s not an easy process, but it’s fun’

A couple of years ago while walking to the Harris Fine Art Center's de Jong Concert Hall to set up for a presentation at Education Week, Humanities Professor Donald Parry encountered an unusual sight: a line winding down the building’s steps and along the sidewalk for over a block.

“I walked up to the last people in line and asked, ‘What’s this line for?’” Parry said. “A couple of ladies were there and they said, ‘We’re here to hear Brother Parry speak!’... I thought, ‘Well, that adds some pressure.’”

Parry, who teaches the Hebrew Bible and Dead Sea Scrolls at BYU, is no stranger to Education Week—he’s been presenting at the conference for more than 22 years. The popularity of his classes speaks to his expertise in a variety of Old Testament topics that he alternates every few years. This year, he will delve into the writings of Isaiah with four new presentations he says were decades in the making.

“The process for me starts years in advance of when I actually present,” Parry said. “[In the first stage], I teach and I study and I write about [the topic]—I become very familiar, so I’m not a hobbyist, I’m not an amateur.”

After applying to present at Education Week, Parry faces a different challenge: paring down all of his findings into 50-minute blocks.

“I have so many verses and so many stories to share with the audience,” Parry said. “I’m prayerful, I rely on the Lord to help me, and then I just go to work and think, ‘What’s understandable? How can I best reach our audience?’ I choose passages that aren’t always well-known—not the same passages we hear in Sunday School or Seminary. It’s not an easy process, but it’s fun.”

Betsy Denney, Ballroom: ‘I consider it such a privilege’

Students in Betsy Denney’s Education Week classes don’t sit down; they’re too busy learning steps to the cha cha, waltz and other popular ballroom dances.

Denney and her husband Karson, both adjunct ballroom instructors at BYU, have been keeping conference participants spinning and sliding since 2007. Youth and adults alike sign up for their beginner-level classes that almost always reach full capacity at 200 dancers—a much higher volume than a typical 40-person ballroom class.

“There’s a lot of people in the class so we have to do it a little bit differently in the way we organize the people, the way that we have them stand and rotate partners,” Denney said. “By the time they leave our class, they know four to five steps and they would be able to take that and dance.”

The energy of the classes and the eagerness of the students draws Denney and her husband back to Education Week each year.  

“I consider it such a privilege to be able to teach at Education Week, to be a part of such a wonderful program,” she said. “Over the years, I’ve had so many people say, ‘Hey, did you teach a ballroom class at Education Week?’ People remember and I think they enjoy the classes, for sure.” 

Mark Ogletree, Religious Education: ‘There’s definitely a bug you can catch’

Associate Professor of Church History Mark Ogletree is fine-tuning a new presentation he’s bringing to Education Week this year about helping boys become men. 

Ogletree says he gets particularly excited about the research aspect of his presentations, the process of searching for and curating information that can empower parents and individuals. As for his other favorite part, well:

“[It's] when you present and people come up and say ‘Oh my gosh, where did you get that?’ or ‘How can I get a copy of that?’ or ‘We need that so much,’ or ‘Could I borrow a story that you told to use for my Priest’s Quorum?’” Ogletree said.

The wide range of expert presenters is another reason Ogletree says he can't stay away.

“There’s definitely a spirit that attends Education Week and there’s definitely a bug that you can catch,” he said. “One of the reasons I try to be a part of it is not for what I’m doing, but for what other people are doing, too. I always want to go sit in their classes and if I don’t, I feel like I’m missing something.”

Julie Crockett, Mechanical Engineering: 'It's been a really big learning experience'

Julie Crockett's Education Week presentation on getting more women involved in engineering hits close to home, but she didn't rely on personal experience alone to prepare for the conference.

"I actually got together with five or six other people in our college and we talked about what we thought would be important," Crockett, associate professor of mechanical engineering, said. "We met a few times, created a kind of a stream of conscious—a lot of different thoughts, a lot of different ideas—and went through and created an outline and started to think about, 'OK, these are the ideas we really want to hit.'"

For Crockett, Education Week is an opportunity to dig deep into research on a subject that has interested her for years. It's also a chance to learn how to disseminate information to a very diverse audience with broad experiences. 

"That’s been really interesting for me—to try to go through the research for someone else who is in a different place," she said. "I still want them to get the same feeling about the importance of engineering as I have, but they aren’t necessarily engineers and they don’t necessarily know a lot about it. So it’s been a really big learning experience [for me]."

Marleen Williams, Counseling and Psychological Services: 'The payoff is so good'

Over the past seven years, Marleen Williams, clinical professor of counseling psychology, has presented about anxiety, depression, eating disorders and personality disorders at Education Week. 

This year, she decided to try something new. 

"I was kind of running out of diagnoses," Williams joked. "I thought, 'Well I want to get to the positive side of it—how can you buffer your life against more serious problems, what are some of the things that help people have active, more fulfilling lives.'"

Williams' presentations are at the intersection between science and religion, including both the latest research from her field, as well as statements from the leadership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Her preparation often begins with a simple search on the Church's website, lds.org.

"I really enjoy being able to give that educational material to an LDS audience from an LDS perspective, particularly about mental health because there’s a lot of stigma out there," she said. "I was surprised by how many people suffer because of misinformation. So often they’ll say, 'To have heard this this way, I finally can accept myself,' or 'I realize I’m not a bad person.'"

Though Education Week is a well-earned break for many professors, Williams says she chooses to stay for the 'pay.'

"The 'pay' is so good—the payoff is so good, to have somebody come up and say this made a difference. That’s been worth it."

Story Highlights

Want to teach at Education Week? Know a professor that would be a great asset to the conference? Email Continuing Education's Bruce Payne (bruce.payne@byu.edu) to find out more. 

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Donald Parry, Professor of Hebrew Bible and Dead Sea Scrolls.

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Betsy and Karson Denney, both adjunct ballroom professors, teach their Education Week classes together.

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Mark Ogletree, Associate Professor of Church History.

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Julie Crockett, associate professor of mechanical engineering.

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Marleen Williams, clinical professor of counseling psychology.

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Elder David A. Bednar, speaking at the Education Week Devotional in the Marriott Center
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