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2005 Faculty Awards: Romanos A Teacher “In Terror” of His Students

“Be in terror” is the advice award-winning teacher Michael Romanos would give to anyone wanting to become a good teacher. 

Date: 5/4/2005 12:00:00 AM
By: Mary Reilly
Phone: (513) 556-1824
Photos By: Lisa Ventre and submitted by Michael Romanos

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Fear is just about the last emotion that his students, colleagues, friends and family would likely attribute to Michael Romanos, a 2005 winner of the Mrs. A.B. “Dolly” Cohen Award for Excellence in Teaching. 

After all, in his youth, Michael – now professor of planning at the University of Cincinnati – protested against repressive regimes in his native Greece, eventually fleeing the country for his life.  Ever since, he’s traveled the globe, hopping blithely from Europe to Asia to the Americas and doing everything from helping to start universities and  helping to stop environmental degradation.

But as a professor in the top-ranked College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning, Michael also holds the memories of his first teaching experiences at Cornell University.  In his still-distinctive accent, Michael recalls those days:  “I still don’t know why Cornell hired me.  I didn’t have a doctorate at the time.  My English was worse than you can imagine.  I would try to say the word, ‘matrix,’ and it would come out as ‘mattress.’  Still, my students – many of whom were almost my age – didn’t tell Cornell to get rid of me.  I was so self-conscious, and yet, they showed me so much goodwill and were open-minded toward me.  They were sharp kids, and they taught me all sorts of things…. And they forgave me for not being perfect.”

Indeed, the friendly ribbings that he received – like “a mattress is for sleep” – were really designed to teach him without lecturing him.  And Michael recognized that and fully appreciated the friendly, joking relationships.  They inspired him to be the best teacher, lecturer and friend possible.  So, while teaching courses in planning and pursuing his doctorate at Cornell, he also signed up for classes in rhetoric, speech communication and technical writing – just so he wouldn’t let his students down. 

He also recalls, “I would prepare and re-prepare for the classes I taught.  I would ask myself weird and convoluted questions and spend hours devising answers to them.  I was ‘in terror’ they would ask me something smart, and I would have to say, ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about.’”

And now 33 years later, he still maintains that same tension and drive, stating, “If ever I were cavalier about my lectures and seminars, the students would know it.  They know a fake, and they’d stay away.  As a teacher, you’re chosen.  Students choose us, and that’s a trust.”

Michael as he opens the door to his office only to find a line of well-wishers congratulating him on the award.

That’s why Michael still prepares and re-prepares every class, every day, every quarter, every year.  In fact, on the day he found out about the Cohen teaching award, he was miffed to be taken away from his class preparations.  “I wanted to prepare for my 6 p.m. class, but my wife (Carla Chifos, assistant professor of planning) said she needed to go to the university early.  So, I drove… thinking I would work in the office.  When I opened the door, there was this whole line of people including the dean.  You want to talk about ‘terror!’  When the dean is in your office, you start worrying!  I couldn’t hear a word of the presentation.  I lost my own words too,” he laughs.

That doesn’t happen often, according to student Curt Freese.  Curt last year participated in the summer fieldwork Michael has organized for years to allow students and fellow faculty to use their skills abroad, specifically in Greece (with other programs held in Indonesia and Thailand).  During that two-month trip, Curt recalled, “He taught at breakfast.  He taught in the car.  He taught while walking under the incessant pounding heat of the 100-degree sun.  He even taught at 1 a.m.”

That jibes with the recollections of one former teaching colleague who said of Michael: He does nothing half-way…he does things one and one-half ways.

Michael in Crete where he was studying the downside of tourism -- traffic.

So true is that that both colleagues and students also remark on Michael’s ability to change lives.  For instance, Kiril Stanilov, today an associate professor of planning at UC, uprooted his life and came to Cincinnati after meeting Michael and spending an evening with him in Haskovo, Bulgaria, in the mid-1980s.  Haskovo is Kiril's hometown and as a young architect there, he was asked to serve as a tour guide to Michael and a group of planning students.

"His energy and enthusiasm for planning really impressed me.  And, to me, he was kind of like a local guy who had made good since Bulgaria and Greece are neighbors.  He invited me to apply for graduate studies at UC," recalls Kiril, adding, "I couldn't apply in the mid-80s.  It would have meant risking my life with the repressive government in Bulgaria at the time.  But right after the Berlin wall fell, I was one of the first people to leave the country.  I came to Cincinnati in 1990, arriving with one suitcase at 11 p.m. at night.  The next day, I showed up in the School of Planning office, suit case in ready to begin my studies."

And students occasionally change the direction of Michael’s life.  It was former students who asked him to organize a doctoral program in planning at UC, who involved him in organizing a new Greek university and who invited him to Asia to not only organize graduate-degree programs but to advise national governments and city administrations on planning and development programs. 

But, perhaps, the one that’s ideal for the teacher who was once “in terror” of not knowing enough to serve his classes is this 2004 evaluation written by an anonymous student:  “He knows everything!” 

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