Sean Joy met Jennifer Fellabaum-Toston at a time in his life when he felt defeated and lost professionally.
It was the spring of 2014 and Joy had just withdrawn from the graduate program in occupational therapy at the University of Missouri. He was referred to Fellabaum-Toston, who at the time was an associate teaching professor of educational leadership and policy analysis in the College of Education. He was considering applying to the Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis program.
Their meeting would change the trajectory of Joy’s life.
“I remember leaving the meeting feeling inspired, capable and optimistic of what the future would bring,” Joy recalled. “The clarity that I felt for the first time for many years was due to the honesty, empathy and tenacity Jennifer shared with me during our first meeting.”
Today, Joy is celebrating more than two years as a case manager at Gonzoga University. He credits Fellabaum-Toston for helping to shape his future as a student affairs professional.
“Jennifer Fellabaum-Toston guided me with honestly, love and unwavering patience,” Joy wrote about his former graduate professor, advisor and mentor. “Jennifer helped me find my voice again and I have always been so incredibly grateful.”
Joy’s sentiment is echoed by dozens of graduate students who have crossed paths with Fellabaum-Toston during their educational journey at Mizzou.
This spring, Provost Latha Ramchand, administrators and staff surprised Fellabaum-Toston with the 2019 William T. Kemper Fellowship for Teaching Excellence, which includes a $10,000 award.
Kemper Fellowships are awarded to five outstanding teachers at the university each year. This year marks the 29th anniversary of the Kemper Awards, which were established in 1991 with a $500,000 gift. William T. Kemper, a 1926 MU graduate, was a well-known civic leader in Kansas City until his death in 1989.
Fellabaum-Toston dedicates herself not only to the continuous education of her students, but also to the teaching preparation of her colleagues at MU and beyond. Serving as a professor, advisor for master’s and graduate certificate students, and director of the University of Missouri Statewide Cooperative Ed.D. Program, Fellabaum-Toston embraces her research, administrative duties and experiences in the classroom as ways to prepare future educators and facilitate a comfortable learning environment. She also regularly attends professional conferences and encourages student contribution in her courses to improve her skills as a “facilitator of knowledge.
Bradley R. Curs, chair of the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis, said Fellabaum-Toston’s outstanding student evaluations speak to her exemplary quality of teaching. Of the 34 courses Fellabaum-Toston has taught, 29 of them have garnered evaluations that either met or exceeded the courses’ departmental averages.
“Dr. Fellabaum-Toston has made significant contributions to the department through her teaching, advising and administration of academic programs that exemplify the essence of a Kemper Fellow,” Curs said.
Joy credits Fellabaum-Toston’s leadership skills for pushing him to create a plan that turned his dreams into reality.
“Jennifer made myself and my classmates feel capable, confident and focused for the challenges ahead,” he said.
Fellabaum-Toston grew up in Ohio where her parents were factory workers. She was the oldest of four children and often helped care for her three younger brothers. From an early age, Fellabaum-Toston was profoundly curious. She recalls a Christmas when he father spent most of the night assembling a toy car for her to drive. Not long after receiving the gift, 4-year-old Fellabaum-Toston hunted down her father’s tools and tried to take the car apart.
“I wanted to see how it worked,” she said.
Fellabaum-Toston’s parents were voracious readers and avid proponents of education. Her dad was a history buff and her mom was a lover of words, math and science. Young Fellabaum-Toston soon learned that few things could satisfy her curious mind more than devouring a tall stack of books.
“We didn’t have a lot of money, but there were always great public libraries to visit,” she said. “I remember we would go to the library and get as many books as we could carry, and that’s how we filled our time.”
Fellabaum-Toston came to Mizzou in 2005 as a student affairs professional, working as a residence hall coordinator. She joined the faculty of the College of Education in 2012, after receiving a doctorate of philosophy in higher and continuing education at MU.
Kathryn Chval, dean of the College of Education, said Fellabaum-Toston has taught 12 different graduate courses over the past five years, evidence of her breadth of knowledge and competency. That’s in addition to her advising and mentoring.
“Her course materials, interactions with students, advising reviews and teaching evaluations demonstrate her dedication to outstanding teaching,” Chval said. “She creates a classroom environment in which students feel comfortable taking risks and sharing their thinking.”
Other faculty at Mizzou have learned from Fellabaum-Toston’s impressive teaching methods, especially through an online medium. Michael Steven Williams, an assistant professor in the College of Education, said her guidance helped him to be more comfortable with online teaching.
“In addition to sharing course assignments and expectations weekly — as she does in her traditional in-person courses — she also leverages available technology by using VoiceThread both for lessons and to offer feedback on student work,” Williams said, noting that this interaction helped establish a connection between Fellabaum-Toston and her students. “She believes and helped me to believe that teaching online can be as transformative as teaching in person if you go about it with care and intentionality.”
Fellabaum-Toston’s guidance has even spread across Missouri through her role as the director of the University of Missouri Statewide Cooperative Ed.D. Program, an initiative that joins Mizzou with Missouri State University, Northwest Missouri State University, Southeast Missouri State University and the University of Central Missouri to discuss cooperative curriculum and the instruction given to educational leaders.
Jeni Hart, dean of the graduate school and vice provost for graduate studies, said that Fellabaum-Toston has proven to be an outstanding leader by facilitating teams of faculty to continuously review and improve the program.
“The program is now more than 20 years old, and under Jennifer’s leadership, the program has won a regional award and two national awards, reflecting the excellence of the program’s design, curriculum and instruction,” Hart said.
Chelsea Fricker, a Mizzou alumna currently pursuing a doctoral degree in educational leadership, attributed her passion in this area of study to Fellabaum-Toston’s validating teaching style and selfless desire to help students grow. Outside of class, Fricker said Fellabaum-Toston was her “life advisor” while she was in graduate school, always making herself available to assist with class, graduate assistantships and job searches.
“In a trip back to Columbia a few months ago, one of my first stops was to Jennifer’s office,” Fricker said. “Talking to her has always provided clarity, confidence and comfort. That same clarity, confidence and comfort are felt in her classroom and by every single student who has the privilege of working with her.”
Ultimately, Fellabaum-Toston views teaching and learning as an ongoing process and that in the classroom, she doesn’t have to be an expert on everything.
“I see my role as a facilitator of knowledge and growth rather than an expert imparting knowledge,” she said. “What I can do is help people discuss and identify resources to bring to the discussion so we are all better off.”
Jennifer Fellabaum-Toston at a glance:
Fellabaum-Toston received a bachelor of specialized studies in professional leadership and a master of education in college student personnel, both from Ohio University. After receiving a doctorate of philosophy in higher and continuing education at Mizzou in 2012, she joined the faculty of the MU College of Education. In 2017, she received the University of Missouri Faculty Council Shared Governance Award and was selected as a member of the 2018-2019 University of Missouri System Leadership Development Program cohort.
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