Submitted as part of application for the 2020 University of North Carolina Board of Governors Excellence in Teaching Award.
“Love is at the root at everything, all learning, all relationships, love or the lack of it.”Fred Rogers
I grew up twenty miles from WQED Studios in Pittsburgh, where the iconic children’s show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was filmed. While my father died when I was very young, my mother and grandparents provided a loving and supportive environment. My grandfather, a member of the Greatest Generation, not known for their outwardly expressions of sentimentality or affection, would tell me, always, “Grandpap loves you.” When I wasn’t reading (you won’t be surprised to hear that a future historian consumed books in great quantities), you would probably find me watching my beloved Mister Rogers. Rogers would look into the camera, at me, and say, “I like you, just the way you are.” For a child who was loved but quite unsure about his place in the world, this meant everything. The older I grow, and the longer I engage with students, the more I realize that I have embraced the worldview of Fred Rogers — the basic dignity, value, and potential of every person, no matter where they are in their journey; the centrality of empathy and love to all relationships and learning; and the need to engage people with authenticity and to understand the experiences, feelings, and worldviews of others as authentic human expressions, no matter how those may relate to one’s own.
The professors who mentored me as an undergraduate and as a graduate student expressed genuine interest in my personal and intellectual development, and I embrace their holistic approach to education in my own teaching. This means getting to know my students — their aspirations and interests, their strengths and weaknesses, the challenges and complications that they face outside of the classroom. I establish and develop long-term relationships with my students that last beyond their time in my classroom and their time at ECSU. My students know that I care about them, that I am available and open-minded, and that I will do anything within reason to help them succeed academically and in life. For me, support of and rapport with students is the essential base of any effective pedagogy, without which expertise, content knowledge, and great classroom teaching are of little use. Every student deserves to be loved (this does not mean that we must like all of our students). Every student deserves to have her or his humanity recognized, respected, and valued. Part of my approach focuses on an understanding that every student brings something of value and meaning to their experience in my class, that every student has something to offer. What that contribution or “light” is may not be evident from the beginning, or the middle (or the end!) of a course. But part of my job is to help every student find that thing that that she or he brings to the experience of my class. Doing so requires me to recognize, accept, and embrace the fact that what the student brings may not conform to my preconceptions of what it means to contribute to the class. Accepting students “just the way [they] are” is not an embrace of low expectations or stasis but an effort toward helping them grow and understand what they have to offer.
I also place considerable value on empathy. As a historian, I want to know where students are coming from, as people. As teachers, we frequently encounter students who are disconnected, bored, sometimes even hostile. Students are often unprepared or underprepared for the lessons that we want to teach them. It’s easy enough for us to cast the blame on the student, to say that she or he needs to work harder, embrace a better attitude, and so on. And these are often reasonable and valid suggestions. But rarely are things so simple. Rarely can students solve their problems by pure act of will. I try — as best as I can — to understand where students are coming from and help them work through challenges and complications. This might mean talking, helping them connect to campus or community resources, providing some extra help or extra time. I don’t adjust or lower my expectations of a student based on her or his situation, but I do everything in my power to help them rise to those expectations. Sometimes (often), I fail, and don’t get through to a student, but I hope that I have knocked out a brick of two of that facade — of whatever is preventing them from fulfilling their potential. And hopefully I will encounter them again, or another instructor (or family member or pastor or friend) will carry on my work.
Finally, I embrace creativity. There are many of-the-moment phrases that describe non-traditional teaching methods: active learning, hands-on learning, experiential learning. At the core of all of these philosophies, approaches, and ideas is an effort to engage students in ways that go beyond the bounds of a traditional classroom environment. I do lecture and lead discussions — albeit in ways that maximize to the best of my abilities student engagement. But I also embrace the idea of play — in Reacting to the Past roleplaying games, for example, where students read important historical texts and play out the past — and that learning can and should be enjoyable and exciting. I frequently ask students to invent societies or circumstances or to make or interpret a creative work (using Black Panther to make sense of the history of colonialism, for instance) to make sense of the past or present. An embrace of creativity and imagination, to imagine and reimagine the world past, present, and future, is not only the world of Early Childhood Education or the Neighborhood of Make-Believe; it is also about having our students create, perform, and play as part of their learning in our courses.