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Saturday March 17, 2012

Up close and personal with Nancy Zimpher

Dressed in a chic navy blue skirt-suit with white details, she enters the room surrounded by a posse of people. She looks around and says a quick greeting. “Oh, hello! I'm Nancy,” she says with a big smile. As she sits with her well-manicured hands on her lap, Zimpher is the epitome of style and grace.

From humble beginnings as a one-classroom grade school teacher in the Ozarks, the United States, Zimpher has taken about 40 years to get to be where she is today. Coming from a family of teachers, she believes there is a science to teaching.

“I've done a lot of study on the demographics of teaching and for a long time the primary teachers were women. However, you're not just a good teacher because you are a woman and you had nurturing capacity. I don't think you are born into teaching, I think you have to acquire teaching skills, so that separates me from previous generations, who mostly did think that,” Zimpher says.

The beginning

“I began my teaching career in a one-room school where all the grades were taught in one room. I thought it was great. It was fun to have the students learn together and help teach each other.

“I was supposed to be an English literature teacher but I was teaching science, social studies, mathematics and art. I also had a choir where I played the guitar,” Zimpher adds.

Learning through teaching others rather than learning from being taught is turning out to be a modern day concept.

She adds that having taught other subjects than she intended to stimulated her interest in how teachers are prepared to teach. “So, for many years I've been working on the preparation of teachers and how to better help them help the learners in their classrooms,” she says.

She now holds the responsibilty of being chancellor of the State University of New York. She has made many headlines for the education industry in the United States through her prior work.

During her stint at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee from 1998 to 2003, she was the first female chancellor. She was also the first female president at the University of Cincinnati from 2003 to 2009.

From a grade school teacher, Zimpher quickly moved up to become professor teaching teachers. Then, she became a dean, which led to her presidencies and now chancellorship.

“It doesn't happen overnight,” she quips.

Lift as you climb

Zimpher is a fan of the phrase Lift as you climb', one that the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) in the United States embodies, as she thinks that women all over the world have had a long challenging pathway towards being in charge, or being at the top.

“I think it helps to remember that if you finally get to a place where you have a great deal of responsibility is to lift others also as you ascend,” she says.

From the way Zimpher talks, it is clear just how passionate she is about education. She tells StarBizWeek, “The fact of the matter is that in the US, I have had a lot of experience working with villages, towns, and cities to ensure that every child is well educated in each of our communities.”

International work

Zimpher was invited by the Global Science and Innovation Advisory Council (GSIAC) to speak about the centrality of education to everything else that people do in the country. “It was about educating more people, in particular the young people, so that we can increase the economic competency of Malaysia.

“I was asked to talk about issues related to educating more students in Malaysia and educating them better. Basically, to prepare them for our economy and for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields,” she says.

GSIAC is a joint initiative between the Malaysia Industry-Government Group for High Technology (MIGHT) and the New York Academy of Sciences (NYAS). It was set up during the Prime Minister's working holiday to the United States in 2010. The council serves to provide relevant and credible advisory to the Prime Minister on matters that concern innovation, science and technology.

Leak in education pipeline

She continues, talking about the similarities between the education system in the United States and Malaysia. “It turns out that in the United States and Malaysia, we are losing a lot of young people. They drop out of school, they lose interest, and they end up not completing their education. So in the end, they can't contribute to the community.”

Zimpher is very motivated to solving the leaks in the education pipeline. “This is very important to my work at SUNY.

“We can do something about this. If we work collaboratively, and if we use data to tell us where the big problems are such as: where is the big attrition from? Is it in primary school? Or high school? Or in tertiary?,” she questions.

With that knowledge, we would be able to improve the way students matriculate through the education process. It is very important in this day and age to have a college degree, just because the technology of businesses and industries requires it.

She adds, “If we work together and use evidence-based interventions and stick with it for the long haul, we can fix this problem.”

“There is a nice outcome there. If you are college educated, you'll probably earn more money, probably put an emphasis on educating your children, and be healthier - because you're smart about what you eat and what your lifestyle is,” she says with utter conviction.

It is also a known fact that people who are educated are more likely to vote and participate in the democratic process.

“Only a few countries have conquered the leakage problem. These are countries where teaching as a profession is greatly admired, and the best and the brightest of young people aspire to become teachers.

“Teachers in countries such as Finland, Japan and Singapore understand that learning is an interactive process. They are financially rewarded for being teachers and encouraged to stay in the profession because the context for being a teacher is positive,” Zimpher says.

SUNY has a big hairy audacious goal (BHAG) to improve the economic status of New York and the quality of life for its citizens. The BHAG idea stemmed from a book entitled “Built to Last”, written by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras.

A BHAG is basically a strategic business statement which is created to focus an organisation on a single medium to long term organisation wide-goal which is audacious, and likely to be questionable, but not regarded as impossible.

“This is the umbrella for the strategic plan which we call The Power of SUNY.

“We have settled on six big ideas that we think can move the dial in New York which include sealing the leaks in the education pipelines. I hold it as the one idea that has the potential to impact everything else,” Zimpher says enthusiastically.

On her experience as a chancellor so far she exclaims enthusiastically: “It has been a blast!”

During her reign so far, she has had a few people who have approached her to comment on what she is doing.

According to her, the comment she will always remember is when people say, “You know, I really like what you're doing so far. You can mess it up tomorrow, but so far...” she laughs.

Team players

At SUNY, Zimpher feels that the impact that she and her cohorts are able to make is bigger given the size of the public university, which encompasses a total of 64 campuses and serves over 460,000 students.

She adds, “I like it because we are creating educational opportunities for the masses. Our goal is to make the whole of our work greater than the sum of those 64 campuses.”

This goal has called Zimpher and her colleagues to invent a new word “systemness”. “If you are able to connect the dots for all these 64 campuses and take good ideas to scale then you are greater of the sum of your parts, you are exercising systemness,” she explains.

Zimpher says that teaching should be seen as a more interactive and creative profession. “We need an education process that frees people to be problem solvers, good communicators, and good team players.”

These sort of skills are typically called soft skills, “but today we call them hard skills because they are hard to acquire. They are skills that are cemented in early childhood, and in the child's earliest schooling experience,” she says.

Zimpher mentions that her favourite book is All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten' by Robert Fulghum because it teaches simple things that has been taught in a school environment. “Don't you think the world would be better if everybody took a nap and had cookies in the afternoon?” she asks, quoting some of Fulghum's poem.

“To be an educator means that fundamentally you have a stock of values. On a real heavy level, mine would be my own commitment to give kids an education,” she says confidently.

“My inspiration, comes from my parents. Mostly my mother's drive and my father's sensitivity. It took both right?” she jokes. She continues, saying that she also had good teachers who were role models to her.

“What's frustrating about the lack of respect teachers often experience is that, I think everybody in the world has had at least one inspirational teacher. And so, I carry a mental model of the best of the best and still believe it's a magnificent profession,” she proudly says.

BORN: Oct 29, 1946 in Ohio, the United States

PERSONAL: Married with three sons

HIGHEST QUALIFICATION: PhD in Teacher Education and Administration

CAREER: Chancellor, State University of New York

NOTEWORTHY: Recognised Teacher Educator in US, recognised as distinguished Researcher in Teacher Education

FAVOURITE FOOD: Pizza

FAVOURITE PLACE: The Rocky Coast and Maine, USA

HOBBIES: Painting with water colours, playing the guitar, piano and dulcimer and golf

VALUES: The entire morale compass, ethical Inspiration: Her mother's drive and her father's sensitivity

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