“You’re keeping calm while everyone else is on a roller coaster of emotion.” - Jon Leffingwell on fifty years in education

Wednesday, Aug 12, 2020

When you sit down to talk with Dr. Jon Leffingwell, you learn very quickly that his amicable and easy manner belies a seriousness of purpose and a deep commitment, not just to his profession or his students but also to his colleagues and to a much larger philosophy.

For Dr. Leffingwell, retiring in his fiftieth year at The University of Texas at Arlington, success in his field and in his life ultimately comes down to the relationships he cultivates. At the core of those relationships? Compassion and understanding.

Leffingwell came to UTA to teach educational psychology courses, including child and adolescent development, in the summer of 1971. During the period, he was completing his dissertation, a study of anxiety in college students.

He was appointed assistant professor in the fall of 1971.

In looking back at the campus when he first began, Dr. Leffingwell notes that UTA today is a much more diverse campus, both in students and faculty, and there are far more student support services on campus now. The thing he misses about his early years is how a much smaller campus facilitated a much freer and easier exchange of ideas, allowing for more interaction and learning with faculty and staff from different entities and disciplines on campus. He has maintained that enthusiasm for cross-campus, interdisciplinary relationships by serving on a number of university committees.

Dr. Leffingwell observes that although the university has experienced a great deal of change in the past fifty years, the student population has been consistent in its unique makeup, and he points out the positive effect that has on the student body in general. Leffingwell notes that a large percentage of the UTA student population has always consisted of working adults, with an average student age remaining consistent over the years of around twenty-six years old. Dr. Leffingwell sees this as a strength for UTA.

“I think the fact that people are working and going to school makes them more involved in their education, and more appreciative,” he said. “They’ve learned to work when it’s time to work, and play when it’s time to play. There are a lot of people in their thirties and forties who’ve been in industry, or in the military, who have changed careers. They’re here because they really want to be. And it’s a positive influence on their peers in their classes.”

Dr. Leffingwell has watched the College of Education grow from a department in Liberal Arts, to a Center for Professional Teacher Education, before becoming a School and eventually a College. Key to that growth and to developing a vital cohesion, he says, is the increase in specialization, such as the expanded focus on special education, and the diverse field of instructors who have joined the programs.

Dr. Leffingwell has enjoyed excellent relationships throughout his career. “Being able to sit down and talk and go across different types of expertise is important,” he said. “We can be supportive of one another, try new programs, revise what needs to be revised. And having that dialogue is vital. That has worked well in facilitating inclusion.”

His great love is teaching, as evidenced by nominations from the College of Education for a number university teaching awards beginning in 1986. These nominations include the Amoco Award for Outstanding Teacher at UTA in 1986, the Chancellor’s Council Outstanding Teacher Award in 1992 and 2001, the Piper Professor Award in 2001, the Academy of Distinguished Teachers in 2001, 2011 and 2013, and the Chancellor’s Council Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2010 and 2012.

Part of the key to Dr. Leffingwell’s personal success is a solid balance between his work life and his personal interests. He is noted on campus for being a sports car enthusiast, but even closer to his heart is his interest in interpersonalrelationships. In addition, he has a profound interest in architecture, going back to his student days as an architecture major. He designed a home in Plano, as well as a lakehouse for a colleague. Fellow faculty members can often observe him creating architectural sketches as he works, which he says helps him process information.

Jon Leffingwell has had a rich and interesting professional life outside his teaching duties, including work as a court-appointed psychologist. He worked in family law cases, helping parents communicate with school counselors and teachers pertaining to home situations, such as changing schools or the ongoing stresses and anxiety of divorce.

In the 1980s, as an outcropping of his forensic work, Dr. Leffingwell assisted Arlington schools in dealing with an increase in student suicides. He assisted in developing Care Teams in every junior high and high school to help faculty and students take the focus away from "why" their classmates were becoming victims of suicide, and instead concentrating on supporting one another in a preventative way. “Helping teachers and counselors and principals become aware of how they can be supportive of students who are struggling was very rewarding,” he said.

When Dr. Leffingwell looks at current trends, not just in education but in society at large, his greatest concern comes from what he perceives as a lack of dialogue and a polarization that keeps people with opposing views from even communicating. Teachers can be good role models in solving problems at low levels.

“There will always be differences,” he said, “but let’s talk about the differences. I have skills you don’t have and you have skills I don’t have. And that’s not a threat, it’s just different.”

For new teachers just beginning their careers in what can only be described as challenging and uncertain circumstances, Dr. Leffingwell offers simple advice. Good principals can provide a senior faculty member to mentor new teachers. New teachers should keep an open dialogue with mentors and have a good relationship with principals, vice principals and counselors.

Utilize the existing support systems, he stresses. Good administrators will be inclusive; they’ll want to know what new teachers need, and they’ll want to feel free to tell those new teachers what they need. Open communications is vital, as is flexibility.

Most of all, he advises, new teachers should concentrate on how they can help their students and colleagues without taking on the anxieties and stresses of the world around them, no matter what those external challenges might be, whether interpersonal or global.

“Basically, what you’re doing is keeping calm when everyone else is on a roller coaster of emotion.” He advised, “Don’t get on the roller coaster.”