For math professor Kaitlyn Perry Niedzielski, successful teaching is as much about relationships as it is about square roots. The winner of Wingate University’s 2022 Debra M. O’Neal Award for Excellence in Teaching, Dr. Niedzielski starts each semester with the goal of helping math-haters and those who doubt their competence become a bit less adversarial toward the subject.
“It’s never great to begin a semester with negativity, so my goal is to have my students either become a little more confident in their math skills or even to hate math less,” she says. “Watching these students grow from day one to the day of their final exam makes teaching worth it. It’s not always easy, but it’s definitely rewarding.”
Niedzielski says she’s had students tell her that they studied for her final more than they probably needed to because they enjoyed working on the calculus questions. Part of that shift toward enjoying math happens because Niedzielski takes time to get to know her students.
“Dr. Niedzielski is a mentor, teacher, leader, supporter and colleague to students in mathematics and around Wingate’s community,” says senior Tyler Moore, who nominated her for the award. He says he is one of many to have benefited from her “in-depth knowledge and passion for mathematics, accompanied by her companionship.”
A math and education major who is headed into the classroom for student teaching in January, Moore says he will take fond memories of Niedzielski with him.
“Memories of simply stopping by her office to talk about math subjects, fun things like Rubik’s cubes and puzzles, or even to talk about the most recent concert she has attended,” he says.
Niedzielski says those kinds of conversations multiply her effectiveness as a teacher exponentially.
“My advice to new professors would be to take the time to get to know your students,” she says. “Encourage them to stop by during office hours. Have your students work in groups and walk around to chat with them, or even show up to class a bit early to ask them how their days are going or if they’re going to watch the newest horror movie.
“The students really enjoy getting to know their professors just as much as we enjoy getting to know them. I find that the students stay on top of assignments more and don’t want to let me down at the end of the semester, so they are more motivated to do well in the course.”
Moore, who spent last summer doing research with Niedzielski as part of a Reeves Summer Research grant, says her guidance was also helpful when he and a fellow student started W’Infinity, a registered student organization for anyone interested in math.
“With her support, we have hosted numerous events this year, with some involving more than 75 students,” Moore says. “Dr. Niedzielski supported our efforts 100 percent through the entire process.”
The late Debra O’Neal, the award’s namesake, was described as “an innovative and beloved teacher, scholar and colleague known for her presentation of challenging courses and her sisterly support for students.” The award is reserved for a faculty member who has served with distinction in the classroom and who has been a member of the faculty for eight years or less. Niedzielski started at Wingate in August 2016.
A resident of Indian Trail, N.C., she earned her master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Alabama and her bachelor’s from Mount St. Mary’s University.
Her award was one of two annual undergraduate faculty awards presented at Wingate near the end of the fall semester. The Charles and Hazel Corts Award for Excellence in Teaching went to Dr. Magdalena Krajewska. Graduate faculty awards were also handed out. Dr. Mary Swiggum earned the Excellence in Research and Scholarship Award, and Dr. Jennifer Wilson was named Graduate Faculty Member of the Year.