Every fall, the University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB) dedicates one week to commemorating our rich history and celebrating the future we’re building together. Among the highlights of Founders Week is recognizing the extraordinary work of our faculty and staff. Four awards are given every year, each signifying outstanding accomplishment in one facet of our mission. Leading up to Founders Week, we will highlight the award winners every Tuesday on The Elm. For more information on UMB’s annual celebration, please check out the Founders Week website.
Today: Teacher of the Year
Geoffrey L. Greif, PhD, MSW
Professor, School of Social Work
Geoffrey Greif likens the ingredients of a skilled instructor to that of a good soup.
“The classroom is like a pot of soup,” he says. “To make it tastier, you have to add a pinch of salt, a dash of pepper, and turn the heat up a bit or lower it a tad to achieve the right meal. All classes are different and some students are hungrier and can consume more. Hopefully, by the end of the first class, they will catch the aroma and want to be nourished.”
Greif has been nourishing students at the School of Social Work (SSW) since 1984. Called by some the most popular and sought-after professor at the school, regularly graded 15 on a 15-point student evaluation scale, Greif says he is surprised to still be here.
“I expected to stay about a month, which is when I believed they would find out I didn’t know anything and would fire me,” he says in the humble manner that has attracted him to so many. Despite his longevity and many awards for his teaching, research, and community service, Greif still does the little extras.
“The context in which we practice social work changes,” Greif says. “I have to stay on my toes or the ‘context-train’ will pass me by and neither the students nor I will learn.”
Colleagues and students scoff at that possibility.
“Our graduate students are not the only beneficiaries of his teaching skills,” says professor Frederick A. DiBlasio, PhD, LCSW-C, a 32-year SSW veteran himself. “Many of us standing alongside Dr. Greif have gleaned from his numerous approaches to teaching that have served us well in the classroom and have withstood the test of time.”
Like calling the students by name, which Greif tries to do from day one. “Geoff knows and cares about his students,” says SSW Dean Richard P. Barth, PhD, MSW. “And they know and care about him.”
Adds Megan Meyer, PhD, MSW, senior associate dean, “Dr. Greif has been a mentor to many younger faculty, always willing to share his sage advice on topics ranging from navigating difficult conversations in the classroom to maintaining a steady rate of publishing while dedicating time to school leadership and community service.”
In fact, his work on difficult conversations grew into an in-service training video that is part of orientation for new SSW faculty.
Students mention how his risk-taking in the classroom — using demonstrations, role plays, observations, student projects, and more — promote active learning and enhance their interest.
“Ten years later, his teaching continues to impact my own engagement as an educator,” says Shari E. Miller, PhD ’08, associate dean at the University of Georgia School of Social Work. She remembers Greif approaching her in her first year as a PhD student and saying, “I hear you have an interest in social work education research. I’ve got this idea for a study, would you be interested in collaborating?”
Now Miller looks to pass on Greif’s insight to others. “I hope to mentor my students and give to them in the profound ways Geoff has given to me and to countless other students over the years.”
Through his voluminous writing (14 books and more than 125 journal articles and book chapters), Greif has provided guidance to many who never sat in his class. Parenting is a favorite topic, and not just because he and his wife of 42 years, Maureen, have two daughters of their own.
“It is hard to travel far in clinical social work and not run into family systems,” he says. “I was fortunate to do a yearlong training in the 1970s with one of the greatest 20th-century family therapists, Salvador Minuchin. That training solidified my clinical work and my research around the importance of understanding our interconnectedness.”
Books he’s written in recent years also revolve around relationships: understanding male friendships, couples friendships, and adult sibling relationships.
He’s not tied to the UMB campus either. He is coordinator of the Dual Degree Program in Jewish Leadership with Towson University and has collaborated with Freeman Hrabowski, PhD, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, in writing about his Meyerhoff Scholars Program.
“Freeman is a fabulous role model in so many ways,” Greif says. “He has the uncanny ability to draw in people for a common cause — creating a world-class learning environment.”
Then there is the community service of Greif, who has offered pro bono clinical assistance to many groups, including patients with AIDS, low-income parents, and groups such as The Family Tree, Christopher’s Place, Jewish Family Services, the Chesapeake Detention Center in Baltimore, and more. He also was a founding co-leader of a parent support group “Help! My Kids Are Driving Me Crazy!” at various elementary schools in Baltimore.
What was his advice?
“There are so few ‘correct’ answers about how to parent given the amazing variability in people’s experiences,” he says. “You have to find a way, by connecting with and supporting your clients, to help them arrive at their own conclusions about how to make their relationships better.”
Greif’s caring nature has crossed from professional to personal on more than one occasion at the School of Social Work.
Sarah Wise, MSW ’18, associate director of development, recalls how she was taking Greif’s Family Therapy course when her father died. “When I returned from Colorado, Geoff immediately reached out to me. He was not worried about where my midterm paper was, he wanted to know what I needed. He asked me to tell him about my dad. Ironically they had common interests, in particular enjoying live music. Geoff has a gift for connecting with people.”
Tanya L. Sharpe, PhD, MSW, associate professor at SSW, calls Greif “my guy” who has been a faculty mentor for 11 years — never more so than shortly after Sharpe’s arrival when her mother in Connecticut became seriously ill.
“As an only child and a junior faculty member, my time was emotionally and physically split between caring for my mom and meeting the demands of being on the tenure track. At every turn, Geoff was there, checking in. This is the kind of person Geoff is. When my mother passed, his phone call was one of the first I received. He has been for me and so many the voice of reason and calm within the storm. I am forever grateful for that.”
A “ridiculous optimist” who “got lucky in getting into the right profession,” Greif humbly sees such support as part of the job. Teacher. Mentor. Writer. Community and diversity advocate. Committee member. Grandpop (“FaceTiming with the four grandkids” is his favorite hobby). And don’t forget his terms as associate dean and chair of the SSW faculty.
Despite receiving many honors, including the UM Board of Regents’ Faculty Award for Teaching Excellence in 2010, Greif was “thrilled” to learn he was UMB’s 2018 Teacher of the Year. “It is a tremendous honor to receive an award for something I love doing so much.”
— Chris Zang