A photo of Durene I. Wheeler in a red top with blue flowers smiling, facing the camera. Water is in the background.

Thursday, April 6, 2023

Northeastern Illinois University has selected Durene I. Wheeler, Ph.D. as the 2023 recipient of the Audrey Reynolds Distinguished Teaching Award. Wheeler is a professor in the departments of Educational Inquiry and Curriculum Studies (Educational Foundations and Master of Arts in Community and Teacher Leaders (MACTL) programs); African and African American Studies; and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies

Professor Emerita of Linguistics Audrey Reynolds established the award to be given annually to a tenured member of the Northeastern faculty who best demonstrates distinguished teaching. Wheeler will receive $5,000 and give a presentation regarding excellence in teaching.    

Wheeler, who has been teaching at Northeastern for 17 years, believes there are some key components to being a good educator: compassion, cultural awareness, building community and staying current. 

“I feel like if you don’t have compassion, empathy and understanding, you’re going to be too rigid to roll with what some of the things that some young people or individuals have to contend with,” Wheeler said. “An educator also has to be culturally aware and constantly trying to learn about the multiple identities and histories and stories of students and their families because that has to come into play in the curriculum. I feel like my students are invested and committed because I make sure that they can see multiple representations, voices and perspectives in the content. They can see themselves. 

I also think you need to be a community builder; you need to be a bridge builder because there are going to be times when the only way certain subjects and topics can be talked about is if you create that community and that brave space and some semblance of intellectual risk-taking in your classes. This builds rapport and relationships with your students which are crucial for all. You need to know what you’re talking about. You need to be current on best practices, what’s happening in the field and what’s changing. It’s very different to read something for awareness than to read and learn material to create assignments, curriculum and instructional methods that employ my students ability to understand, articulate and synthesize that information.”

Wheeler earned her bachelor’s degree from the College of Wooster in Ohio and started her career in higher education immediately after, working in student affairs before becoming a faculty member at a small, private women’s college. She went on to earn her master’s and doctorate degrees from The Ohio State University, where she was also an instructor during her doctoral program. Wheeler, who previously served Northeastern as the director of the Angelina Pedroso Center for Diversity and Intercultural Affairs, has had countless interactions with students outside of the classroom that provided her with deep insights into who Northeastern students are and what they need. 

“Northeastern students are so passionate about their learning and are so committed,” Wheeler said. “Our students are juggling multiple roles and identities and things yet they show up.  They are some of the smartest, most talented, most passionate folks that I have ever worked with. I think our students are very special and unique. Before I came to Northeastern, I hadn’t seen the level of commitment and passion I get from our students.” 

Of this year’s nominees, the Reynolds Award Committee selected two finalists after careful consideration of nomination letters submitted by colleagues and other members of the University community.

The finalists demonstrated evidence of excellence in teaching, and in each of the dossiers the committee found evidence of innovation, high standards and a positive impact on students at the University. After careful review, the committee recommended Wheeler as this year’s recipient of the award, which will be formally presented at the Faculty Institute in August.

“I am so humbled to receive this award,” Wheeler said. “It still doesn’t feel real, especially with all the other talented colleagues who were nominated. I want to thank Audrey Reynolds, the NEIU Foundation, the Reynolds Award Selection Committee and my colleagues and students who wrote letters of support and helped me put together a great portfolio. I really feel affirmed and like what I do matters. I’m glad I’m able to get my roses while I’m living and can appreciate it.”