Saturday, June 30, 2012

What Makes a Great Teacher

Since returning from a month in Sweden where I was working as a Visiting Professor at the University of Gothenburg, despite it being early summer, there has been a flurry of activity.

As my colleagues, who are professors and academics,  note, summer is not a time that faculty "don't work." On the contrary, we are busy doing research, writing and revising papers, preparing talks for conferences, designing new courses, working with graduate students, and reviewing papers (I hope that the general public gets the message), just to start.

Monday night, I flew back from Europe to Boston Logan and this week (I think that it was the great food and beauty of Sweden that inspired me) I managed to revise two papers and to take part in a 3 hour comprehensive oral exam for a doctoral student.

When I walked into my office at the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst I was surprised to find not only a huge framed poster of my recent Spotlight Scholar award, which I quickly donated to the school since it had a great photo of some of my students, and, without students, being an academic has limited purpose. I had been told that a student had nominated me for this award, which makes it extra special.

I also found an envelope on my desk and, when I opened it, there was an American Greetings card from a student that had just graduated with a degree in Operations Management and had been in my new Humanitarian Logistics and Healthcare course this past spring.

The card had a quote by Henry David Thoreau on it, "To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts," and, in the card, the former student had written a letter which concluded with "I truly can't thank you enough and will be forever grateful." I am still carrying around the card and so much appreciate the thoughtfulness behind his extra effort.

Early this morning, I picked up my Association for Women in Mathematics  (AWM) July-August Newsletter and, as is typical of this great publication, once I have a look at it, I have to read it cover to cover. In it was a beautiful essay by Professor Alan Sultan of Queens College in NYC entitled: "Dedicated to Estelle: Teachers Do Make a Difference." In his essay, Sultan writes about his math teacher, Estelle Gurin, whom he first met as a 12 year old student of hers.  He wrote about how her enthusiasm and love for her subject -- math -- brought out the curiosity in him, and how she inspired him, who had many family problems at home, to work hard and to take responsibility for his actions. He ended up going to college even though his family told him: "There are no bums in our family," since they clearly had no understanding of the value of education.

Sultan went on not only to finish college on a full scholarship but also then got  his PhD in Math. He reestablished contact with his former teacher, who, of course, immediately recognized him.

He writes: "Estelle changed my life. In my classroom, I always try to emulate her. I bounce around, just as she did. I try to teach with great enthusiasm, and excitement." A few years after Professor Sultan received a message through a third party from a former student stating that it was because of him he went on for a PhD, and he has continued to receive such messages from former students.

Estelle Gurin passed away on March 16, 2012, shortly after her 95th birthday.

Whether on the elementary school level, high school, college, or university level, great teachers do make a difference.