Bridge-building in the time of COVID-19
There’s something special that happens in a classroom when everything clicks. Eyes widen. Brows unfurrow. Hands shoot up. Those moments, even in a virtual environment, are why Theo Myhre loves teaching.
In a testament to his passion, dedication and skill as an educator, Myhre is the recipient of a 2021 University of Washington Distinguished Teaching Award. The award is one of the highest honors a faculty member can receive from the UW.
Myhre is one of eight UW Law faculty to receive the award since its inception in 1970 — and the only to receive it in a year of fully remote instruction. He was also awarded the School of Law’s Excellence in Graduate Teaching Award for 2019-21 and for 2020-21.
“The way I approach teaching is really bridge-building between what I know as an expert and what the student knows coming into class,” says Myhre, a teaching professor at UW Law. “If you’re trying to build those bridges, distance learning is super challenging because you lose so many nonverbal cues to see how the information is landing with students. So, the award felt amazing because it means all those shots in the dark were bull’s-eyes.”
Myhre is one of the law school’s most versatile professors. He teaches J.D. and graduate students, and he also teaches in the undergraduate sphere and in the University of Washington Honors Program.
From a young age, Myhre always felt comfortable in a classroom environment and seemed destined for a career in academia. He received graduate degrees in history from Drew University and Boston College, and taught as a graduate student.
During his graduate studies, however, he changed direction because he wanted to have more direct impact on social justice issues. He decided to pursue law, graduated cum laude from Seattle University School of Law and served as law clerk to Justice Charles Johnson on the Washington State Supreme Court.
“The thing that's most exciting is when you can see the idea click in the students’ heads, when you see their perspective actually shift. There's a brightness that comes out of their eyes, and you can see excitement and energy.”
He went on to spend the better part of the next decade as an attorney, a time that included complex commercial litigation with Corr Cronin, LLP, and founding his own law firm, McGlothin Myhre, PLLP.
Myhre merged his two career paths in 2007 when he joined UW Law as a lecturer. His background in history and varied experience as an educator and attorney coalesced into a distinct approach to legal education.
“History looks at evidence: You draw conclusions and you construct the story to give you a deeper understanding about something that occurred in the past,” Myhre says. “But in law, what I found was an entirely different way of thinking about the world.”
The coronavirus pandemic created profound challenges for schools around the globe, and UW Law was no different. To continue to generate engagement effectively, Myhre focused on fostering connections among students by homing in on emotionally resonant concepts.
As for the nonverbal cues, Myhre says many are still tangible even in a Zoom box. In a year unlike any other, he was still able to create, share and experience those most meaningful moments in the classroom.
“I love learning just to the depth of my heart — it gives me energy, it gives me life,” Myhre says. “The thing that's most exciting is when you can see the idea click in the students’ heads, when you see their perspective actually shift. There's a brightness that comes out of their eyes, and you can see excitement and energy.
“A lot of education is about information. But legal education should be about empowerment. When education is actually about understanding and using what you learn, these are the moments that happen. And that I find to be the most satisfying thing.”