Rita Treutel says she can’t remember the specific day she decided to be a teacher.

Rather, the profession chose her.

“I never made the decision to be a teacher,” says Treutel, an instructor in the UAB Department of English. “For as long as I can remember, teaching is the only thing I wanted to do.”

Commitment and a love for her profession and her students both come through in Treutel’s classroom, as evidenced by her selection as the department’s first Core Teaching Award recipient. The endowed annual teaching award was created to identify and reward outstanding service to UAB students in core courses, recognizing a person teaching a large number of first- and second-year students who goes beyond the department’s already high expectations.

“Our committee had already supported an award for creative writing, but we knew that a lot of what the department of English does involves the hard work of teaching basic English courses,” says John Talley, past chair of the English Advisory Committee and co-creator of the award along with retired instructor Grace Carmichael Finkel.

“We wanted to recognize the importance of the core courses, as well as the contributions of the faculty teaching those courses,” Talley says.”

The winner of the award is based mostly on evaluations from students. The other finalists, in alphabetical order, were Dan Butcher, Eugene Cuevas, Danielle Glassmeyer and Jody Stitt.

“It’s an honor to be selected,” Treutel says. “There were some great teachers up for the award — teachers I admire.”

Living her calling
There’s no question teaching is what Treutel believes she was called to do with her life.

Whether it’s teaching incoming freshmen composition, leading adult or children’s Sunday School classes or serving as Cub Master for her son’s Cub Scout Pack in Oneonta, Treutel is always excited about an opportunity to teach others.

Take a recent hiking excursion with her 7-year-old son Andrew’s Cub Scout group as a prime example. Treutel took Pack 53 to an Oneonta cemetery where the children were fascinated with reading the dates on the old tombstones, some of which dated back to the Civil War.

“I know some people will think taking them to the cemetery is kind of morbid, but we got to do math, talk about history and family trees,” she says. “All of these learning possibilities came from this one little hike through a cemetery.”

The learning games extend to the dinner table at home, as well, where Treutel, her husband Bill and children Philip, 11, Andrew, 7, and Sarah Beth, 4,  each come up with a word that the others have to use in a sentence. It’s not only a chance for family bonding, but it’s another learning opportunity.

Opportunity, in fact, is what Treutel promises her students at UAB. Whether it’s a freshman composition class, sophomore literature class, a University 101 class or a Freshman Learning Community Class, she tells her students they will have a chance to analyze problems and come up with their own answers. There is no hand holding in her classroom.

“I don’t stand up and say ‘This is what you are going to do.’ I say ‘This is the problem you have to solve. Here are some tools we might use. Let’s figure out which of these tools will work in this situation,’” she explains. “I think my students know I will work as hard as they will to meet expectations.”

And her students appreciate it: Treutel keeps a thank-you card in her desk that a student gave to her a few years ago. It’s a simple note, stating “Thank you for caring about my future.”

“I didn’t do anything extra for that student than what I offer to all of my students,” says Treutel, who is in her 10th year teaching at UAB. “But she saw that I had a genuine interest in whether or not she made it through this institution.

“That’s pretty cool.”