'Behind the Blue': The 2021 Great Teachers, Part 2
The University of Kentucky Alumni Association started the Great Teacher Award program in 1961 to honor excellent teaching at the university. There have been 307 teachers honored since that first year. Nominations may only be submitted by current students.
To receive the award, a candidate must:
Hold the rank of full-time lecturer or above and have been a member of the faculty for the past three years at UK.
Have superior knowledge of the subject matter.
Have original and innovative classroom presentations.
Demonstrate concern for students, both inside and outside the classroom setting.
Not have been a recipient of the award for the past 10 years.
A committee of the UK Alumni Association Board of Directors and a representative from the student organization Omicron Delta Kappa select the recipients based on objective rating and ranking of the eligible nominations submitted.
This episode of "Behind the Blue" features part two of interviews with the 2021 winners of the Great Teacher Awards. The show includes interviews with three of them: Christopher Crawford, from the College of Arts and Sciences, Department of Physics and Astronomy; Chad Risko, representing the College of Arts and Sciences, Department of Chemistry; and Kathleen Swan, representing the College of Education, Department of Curriculum and Instruction.
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KODY KISER: The University of Kentucky Alumni Association started the Great Teacher Award Program in 1961 to honor excellent teaching at the University there have been 307 teachers honored since that first year. Nominations may only be submitted by current students. To receive the award, a candidate must hold the rank of full time lecturer or above and have been a member of the faculty for the past three years at UK, have superior knowledge of the subject matter, have original and innovative classroom presentations, demonstrate concern for students, both inside and outside the classroom setting, and have not been a recipient of the award for the past 10 years.
A committee of the UK Alumni Association Board of Directors and a representative from the student organization Omicron Delta Kappa select the recipients based on objective rating and ranking of the eligible nominations submitted. I'm Kody Kiser with UK Strategic Communications.
In part two of our look at the 2021 great teachers, we'll talk with the three other winners of the award-- Chad Risco representing the College of Arts and Sciences, chemistry-- Kathleen Swann, representing the College of Education curriculum and instruction-- and our first guest, Christopher Crawford, from the College of Arts and Sciences, physics and astronomy. Interviews were recorded in the spring of 2021 and have been edited for clarity. Christopher Crawford is a professor and the director of graduate studies in the College of Arts and Sciences physics and astronomy department, running one of the largest graduate programs on campus.
He is a leading nuclear experiment physicist, a member of 10 national and international experimental collaborations and a mentor to many UK students. A native of Canada, Crawford earned a doctorate at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and both a master's degree and bachelor's degree from Brigham Young University. His research focuses on neutron reactions, including neutron decay, fusion, and the search for a reaction mechanism responsible for depletion of the deadly antimatter present in the early universe.
He invented a technique for designing precision electromagnets that are used to manipulate neutrons and is developing smart data collection systems to detect and identify the invisible particles present in his experiments. Christopher, thanks for being with us. First things first, let's kind of take you back how did you find out that you'd won this award? How did they reveal this to you?
CHRISTOPHER CRAWFORD: Well, I wasn't teaching a class this semester. So it was actually during our faculty meeting with all of our faculty there. And I happened to be the director of graduate studies, and so I was privy to some of the preparations being made for the class. And somehow, someone slipped in that the first part of the meeting would be an award. And I was like, what award is that? No one told me about any award. And it wasn't until right at the beginning of the meeting and I saw Diana there. And I was like, oh gee. But I still had no idea what it was until they actually came and made the presentation.
KODY KISER: This has become a very prestigious award over the years no less so than because it's entirely student nominated. What does that mean to you to not only be nominated but win?
CHRISTOPHER CRAWFORD: I think it means an awful lot, first of all because all my effort, energy, is towards the students. And so it's actually see recognition from the people that I'm working the hardest for and caring the most about. It kind of adds a new dimension of fulfillment to my job. And it seems like as faculty, we try and take care of making sure people get awards and are recognized for all of their work, but I think students have a lot more important things to think about while they're going through school. So when students turn around and recognize the hard work we're doing, it really means a lot to me.
KODY KISER: How do you think this award will propel you forward in regards to your teaching and your research?
CHRISTOPHER CRAWFORD: I think this award has increased my confidence in the fact that I'm reaching the students. Often, it's very hard to tell the impact you're making. And so we just forge forward, hoping that we're making a difference and to actually to be recognized and to know that, to see the impact, I think, that will give me a lot of confidence going forward in doing the right things and able to help out the way I want to.
KODY KISER: How do your students inspire you?
CHRISTOPHER CRAWFORD: They inspire me in a lot of ways. The first is just the raw energy that they have to attack problems and just their outlook on life, that even if they don't know how to do something, they seem to just know that they can do it. And so that inspires me in my own research when often, I feel the same way. I have no idea how to attack a problem, but I just have to remember to do it like my students do, and we'll be just fine.
KODY KISER: What do your students teach you?
CHRISTOPHER CRAWFORD: I think my students teach me the wonder of physics. When I see them learning all this for the first time and just-- it's like, wow. It reminds me how amazing it is that our predecessors could have figured all this out. And so it's fun to actually see this physics being rediscovered every year.
KODY KISER: What have they impressed upon you specifically over the past year with COVID?
CHRISTOPHER CRAWFORD: This was a very disruptive year for all of us, I think, and I think it took a lot of resilience to keep going. I think one of the biggest impacts I've seen is just the depression and the kind of burning out that happens. And again, our students here just had so much energy, and they just seem to forge on.
And I think that really inspires us all. Also, I guess I could say I was teaching a class, and we had both videotaped portions as well as in-person portions. And at first, I was thinking that no one would show up because they can just look at the lessons online. But I was very impressed that even students, if they had to miss one or two days, they were right back at it the next week. And I think our students are really good at working together in groups and cooperating to get things done.
KODY KISER: What do you try to bring to class to motivate your students and excite them about physics?
CHRISTOPHER CRAWFORD: I like to bring-- well, to excite them about the physics, I like to let them peek into the mathematical structure and to see how everything fits so nicely together first. But that can be a little dry unless they actually play around with it. So what I really like to do is get them up to the blackboard in groups of two or three and have them kind of crack it down together and try and figure out how it all works together by solving kind of prototype problems.
KODY KISER: What's your teaching philosophy?
CHRISTOPHER CRAWFORD: Well, I like to think about what I can add as a teacher that's not already in the textbooks or YouTube, which is a wonderful instructional resource nowadays. And so I try and kind of see what I can add to that in class-- for instance, kind of hands on demonstrations that they can go home and show their roommates.
Or I like to work together in class and kind of discover things together instead of just me telling them things. And the other thing I believe strongly is that there's a great synergism between research and teaching. And so I feel like the research that I do really adds dimensionality to the class, and I try and pull in examples from my research and our homework problems. And at the same time, the teaching, I feel, inspires me to come up with new research ideas and also the students. I should say I also value my students taking part in my research.
KODY KISER: So what are your students like?
CHRISTOPHER CRAWFORD: I tend to teach upper level classes in their junior and senior years, and I found that our students are incredibly mature scientifically and incredibly motivated to want to go on and discover the mysteries of physics what's more than I was when I was that age.
KODY KISER: What motivates you to continue to teach? I mean, you could just do research if you wanted. So what draws you-- what keeps you coming back to the classroom?
CHRISTOPHER CRAWFORD: I really enjoy the interaction I get with the students, and I love seeing that look on someone's face when they finally get it. And I just like to participate in the energy of the students in attacking very difficult problems.
KODY KISER: What would you say to the students who nominated you?
CHRISTOPHER CRAWFORD: Yeah, I really appreciate this nomination. It means a lot to me to know that I'm making a difference. And it's just been a real pleasure seeing the students develop and grow scientifically and especially in the research to do things that I wasn't really sure that would be possible.
KODY KISER: In the same regard, is there anything you'd like to say to the Alumni Association for continuing this award?
CHRISTOPHER CRAWFORD: I'd really like to thank the Alumni Association for making this award possible and for such a heritage of valuing teaching in all its aspects at the university. It inspires us to stretch ourselves a little bit further and go the extra mile.
KODY KISER: What does it mean to you personally or your department or even to the University as a whole to have students all over the country and the world who come from here and they go on to do great things and do great work-- for students to achieve their goals once they leave the university?
CHRISTOPHER CRAWFORD: I think it shows what's possible with a UK education, and it shows a great example for the students that follow. Also, keeping in contact with our students, I think they can be a wonderful guide for our new students who are just graduating and not quite sure what they want to do with their lives yet. Physics is one of those subjects where there's not a real pre-defined career outcome. And so you have to be a little bit creative. And so as I can share examples with successful students in the past, I think that really inspires our current students to venture out in new paths.
KODY KISER: What do you bring to the classroom that you try to teach them beyond physics?
CHRISTOPHER CRAWFORD: I would say the one thing that I value most for my students to learn in my class is self-reliance and just trusting in yourself that you can do difficult things. Our students are pretty good at it, but I like to reinforce the idea of collaborating together, which is one of the most important things nowadays in today's workforce.
KODY KISER: On a personal note or on a professional note, what does receiving this award mean to you?
CHRISTOPHER CRAWFORD: For me, receiving this award validated the effort that I'd put into teaching and doing research with students and helped me realize that perhaps I'm on the right path.
KODY KISER: Is there any advice that you would give for students about reaching out for help when they need it?
CHRISTOPHER CRAWFORD: Often, we're our worst enemies. We don't want to reach out because we're afraid that people will think we're dumb or that we should just know it on our own. And in the same vein, sometimes we're afraid of rejection. And my advice is to realize that if you don't know something, the reason you don't know it is because you haven't learned it yet.
And so if you can break down those barriers, you can have a lot more successful education. And by reaching out to other people, you can learn things much quicker that you could, of course, learn on your own. But we take kind of a roundabout path. And so by practicing reaching out to people, you learn a life skill that's very important in collaborations as well.
KODY KISER: One of the things I want to ask about-- you do research work at Oak Ridge, which seems pretty special. What does it mean for students to have the opportunity to go along with you and experience a facility like this?
CHRISTOPHER CRAWFORD: Our group was very fortunate to carry out research at Los Alamos National Lab at Oak Ridge National Lab, which is just two hours south of UK, and also at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in the DC area. I feel it's very important for students to get outside of UK and see what science looks like in the national labs.
I feel as they travel to the national labs and see the examples of scientists at these facilities that they get a real good picture of the scientific culture that goes on in forefront research in the nation. We also carry out research at Paul Scherrer Institute in Switzerland and the Japan Proton Accelerator Research Complex near Tokyo. And so that offers students a wonderful opportunity to travel to foreign areas and see science as an international cooperative endeavor.
KODY KISER: Chad Risco, associate professor in the College of Arts and Sciences chemistry department, uses creative teaching practices and techniques in the classroom like all his fellow great teacher recipients. Risco received his doctoral degree at the Georgia Institute of Technology and his bachelor's degree at Baker University in Kansas. He's been at UK since 2014. Risco's research blends principles from organic and physical chemistry, condensed matter physics, and material science to develop theoretical materials chemistry approaches to better understand and design materials for advanced electronics and power generation and storage applications.
Among his accolades, Risco was named a 2016 emerging investigator by the Journal of Materials Chemistry from the Royal Society of chemistry, received a 2018 office of Naval Research Young Investigator Award, and was a recipient of the 2019 UK College of Arts and Sciences award for outstanding undergraduate research mentoring. He has approximately 7,500 citations and 140 publications. Chad, Thanks for being with us. What does it mean to be nominated by students, and how did you find this out?
CHAD RISCO: I found out that I was nominated and selected for the award at a surprise sort of influx of people that happened at a virtual faculty meeting where, as we were sitting there and the meeting was coming to order, all of a sudden, I started seeing some familiar faces that were some of the student nominators and then also representatives from the UK Alumni Association and also the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. And I knew something was afoot.
And then all of a sudden, they said that I had been selected for the award, and I was just-- I was ecstatic. I was floored. I was nervous. I was very humbled by, one, being nominated, but then two, being selected. So for me, it's very special.
KODY KISER: How would you say your students inspire you?
CHAD RISCO: So my students inspire me in several ways. I mean, one of the first ways, I think, is just we all come from different places, and we have different perspectives. And as a scientist, as a chemist, it may seem like that is not necessarily something that's important in terms of learning the craft or thinking about research questions and things like that.
But it turns out, at least for us, that I think it's critically important because these different perspectives allow us to have different ways that we view the science, the different ways that we view learning. And so I'm able to take from the students the information that they're able and willing to provide me and try to craft the way that we interact in class so that it's hopefully good for them in terms of providing a good learning environment.
KODY KISER: You do a lot of work in the classroom teaching, but what do you learn from your students?
CHAD RISCO: What do I learned from my students? Well, one of the first things I learned is that a lot of times, I don't know everything that I need to know to be able to hopefully convey the information that I want and to be able to teach them. Our students are quite brilliant, I think, and they ask just really fantastic questions. And so they're always pushing me to do more and to be better so that when those questions come, I'm better prepared as an instructor.
At the same time, I think they help teach me about humanity, again just from the standpoint that our students, both our students here from the US and also our international students, their backgrounds are so different. And some of the my favorite things are just to sit and find those few minutes to talk to students not necessarily about the course material but where they're from and what inspires them to come and to learn.
KODY KISER: Thinking back over the past year, what have you learned from them in context of how they've dealt with the pandemic?
CHAD RISCO: So I mean, in terms of thinking about COVID and what it's done to teaching and learning from the students there, it's about resiliency. It's one thing to maybe be an instructor and have at least some idea of where you're going, like, with, a course and what you want to do with it. But the students, you give them a syllabus, and they kind of have some idea, but they don't really know and then to, last March, just be thrust into, hey, we're changing everything about the way that you've ever done school, at least in sort of this traditional campus setting.
I was just amazed at how well our students responded to that and then also how honest and open they were when things weren't going well. We would have conversations and we still have conversations about are you doing OK and just do little check ins here and there. But overall, I think resiliency is a key word.
KODY KISER: What advice would you give students to encourage them to ask for help or take advantage of resources on campus should they need it?
CHAD RISCO: So I mean, I think one thing to remember is that your teachers and instructors here at the university are people too, and we deal a lot of times with the same issues that you may have or questions that you may have. And so it's sometimes getting over that barrier of like being a bit intimidating is difficult in that perspective. But I would say the vast majority of people here want to help. They want to help you with your courses. They want to help you if you need additional resources. And we know that that's a role that we play, and I think most of us relish that role.
KODY KISER: How does this award carry you forward in your research and teaching?
CHAD RISCO: Sure. So I mean, I guess being recognized for this honor, like I said, is good because at least at this point in time, I've been able-- it maybe suggests that I've been able to reach students. But at the same time, it drives me to want to still do better and to improve, to make sure that the way that we construct the class and work through whatever the problems we may be working on in class that we can continue to reach more and more students.
KODY KISER: What is your teaching philosophy?
CHAD RISCO: In terms of teaching philosophy, for me, it boils down to some extent into the discipline because-- and to some extent, it actually goes to my experience and actually coming into chemistry. I actually dreaded the fact that I had to take chemistry four days a week as an undergrad freshman year. I did OK in it in high school, but it wasn't, like, my thing. I enjoyed other subjects much more.
And I was very fortunate, though, to have a teacher who was also my advisor who really presented material in a way for me that I could understand it very well but then also saw in me that I could study chemistry and that I could do it well. And that was something that I didn't recognize at all, right? And so that impacts me in terms of thinking about a teaching philosophy from the standpoint of how do we take this discipline, which a lot of people-- you meet people on the street, and they'll say, oh, I hated chemistry, right?
How do you take that in and transform it into something that people value, that your students value, that they like to go and learn even if it's for that short period of time that they're in your class? And so for me, that's what sets the way that I think about teaching right is to try to reach as many students as I can and think about the activities that we'll do in class to try to do that. So that's why we mix lecture and what is referred to often as active learning in the classroom.
KODY KISER: Science-- it's such a very disciplined area, it seemed. Science is so by the numbers. How do you introduce or can you introduce creativity, thinking outside the lines sort of, with your students?
CHAD RISCO: I think science in itself is a creative endeavor a lot. Whether you're studying it or you're doing research, it comes down to problem solving. And there are many different ways to solve problems.
And there are going to be certain rules or tools that you might use to go and solve a problem or that you can use to go and solve a problem. But the way that you use them could be very different. And again, this goes back to thinking about the different perspectives that people will bring to the course or to the lab based on where they come from.
They may see problems in very different ways. And you see a lot of solutions that are just incredibly creative from that standpoint. And that, I think, is really exciting when you see students bring something new or get that aha moment and make those connections to something that may be even outside of the realm of the domain.
KODY KISER: Talk to me a little bit about your students, what they're brag. Brag on them just a little bit.
CHAD RISCO: Well, so a lot of the-- because I teach upper level chemistry courses now primarily, so at the upper undergraduate level or graduate level. At this stage, a lot of the students that are in chemistry are very driven. And so you know that they've gone through courses.
They've sort of learned different aspects of the discipline. And so when I look at them, I see that they're here because they want to be here or they need to be here because they want to go and do something else. So many of our students want to go to med school or go to pharmacy school or even graduate school. And so there's a certain drive and passion that the students have that you try to tap into as you're thinking about the course and what material you're going to cover and how you're going to cover it and how can you maybe bring in examples right from other areas to spark that little bit of interest.
KODY KISER: So what motivates you as a teacher personally? Why do you choose to do this?
CHAD RISCO: You know, so again, teaching, for me is, in part, one, because I've been influenced by teachers. Again, I'm here because I've had people that have taken time right to share with me information and their insights and their wisdom. And I think there's just something rewarding, right, with being able to pass on little bits of knowledge that you can to students and watch them grow and flourish as they make their way through a course or make their way through years in the discipline.
So part of it's selfish, right, because there's just this sense of pride and accomplishment but not necessarily for yourself but for being able to see the students go out and do some really great things.
KODY KISER: What does it mean to you and even your department to have these students go out into the world and become successful after their time here?
CHAD RISCO: Well, I think to see those success stories gives you sort of credence to the value of education, that if we have students that go work in the pharmaceutical industry or go and do well in medical school, they are taking that information, that knowledge that you're able to share, and apply it in their discipline and be successful. So I think it just demonstrates or showcases that what we do here is helping people-- not only the students themselves but then the folks that they may touch outside with their careers.
KODY KISER: What would you like to say to the students who nominated you?
CHAD RISCO: Thank you. I mean, thank you is the best thing that I can say. I mean, it was, again, completely sort of astonished and just taken aback at being nominated and then being selected. And that, for me, it means a lot. And so I really appreciate their efforts in the nomination.
KODY KISER: Do you have any thoughts on the Alumni Association who have continued this award for decades now?
CHAD RISCO: Yeah. I mean, I think this award from the Alumni Association is a really fantastic way to recognize the faculty and the lecturers across campus. And it shows that the Alumni Association, the alumni from the university in general, value what happens in these walls. And so a Huge Thanks goes to them not only for me but for also just recognizing the value of the teaching that goes on here at UK
KODY KISER: What do you try to bring to your classes that motivate and inspire your students?
CHAD RISCO: Sure. So I think in terms of walking into class, I try to bring hopefully an enthusiasm for the subject. I love studying chemistry. Again, when I was a freshman in college, that wasn't my thing. But now it is, and I really like it because it's a science where you can learn the discipline and then be able to apply that knowledge to lots of different fields. And so I'm very enthusiastic about chemistry in general and trying to make connections with different areas of science.
And so that's one of the things that I try to bring to the classroom is just maybe a little bit of a sense of excitement about the discipline because it can be hard, right? But if you can show-- if you understand this, if you know this, you can better go and understand something else down the road. I think that can be a powerful way to teach.
KODY KISER: Apart from the standard textbook material, what do you try to teach them beyond that?
CHAD RISCO: I mean, sometimes it comes to thinking. Critical thinking is one of the big things. Again, we will have subjects that we cover in the discipline, and there will be sort of standard problems that we may have the students work on. But then it's one thing to memorize some way of doing something or some way of solving a problem. It's completely different to take that knowledge and apply it in a different way.
And so that takes an understanding not only of the information that you have but being able to take a step back and look at pictures from a distance, problems from a distance, and think about them and sort of mull them around and come up with an answer but then on top of that to say, I have an answer. Is it right? Right, and because you can solve a problem or you can have an idea about a situation. You can make a hypothesis in your research.
And you can come to a result. But then the question is, is that result valid? And so you have to think about the result and what it means and then continue on with that. And so really thinking about problems, thinking about implications of the science that we do and both good and bad and I think just maybe it just also building a bit of an understanding that, yes, we're in here, and we're learning something very specific. But that way that we're trying to work through these problems can be used in many different areas.
KODY KISER: Kathleen Swann has been a professor in social studies education in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction in the College of Education since 2004. Swann earned her doctorate at the University of Virginia, a master's degree in teaching from Johns Hopkins University, and a bachelor's degree in economics at Mount St. Mary's College. She co-chairs the graduate secondary social studies program and oversees the doctoral program in social studies education.
Swann has been a four time recipient of the National Technology Leadership Award in social studies education and works extensively with museums and other educational institutions, including the Smithsonian American History Museum, Smithsonian American Indian Museum, National Geographic, Library of Congress, and the Southern Poverty Law Center, where she consults on inquiry-based initiatives for teachers.
She has also written several books and is the co-creator and co-director of two websites-- C3 Teachers and Making Inquiry Possible, helping social studies and civic education become relevant in K through 12 schools. So Kathleen, thanks for being with us. You have a very amusing story in regards to winning this award. Take me back to that. How did they tell you that you won a Great Teacher award?
KATHLEEN SWANN: So the way that they told me, they surprised me with the award. So the first thing is that our department chair called a department meeting on a Friday that we weren't supposed to have a department meeting. So my reaction was immediately nonplussed because it was in January before the semester started. And so there might have been some words shared about that that were unpleasant.
And my husband is also faculty. He's an assistant dean, but he's faculty in our department. So he was also called to this meeting. But he knew. He knew. And so he played it all week like I may not-- he doesn't like to go to meetings. And so he was like, I don't know if I'll even go to this meeting. And I was like, oh, maybe I won't go either. But I'm a do-gooder. And so I always sort of stand and represent.
So I was sort of grousing that morning. And he's like, I guess I'll go. And right before then, I had just gotten back from working out. And so I was sort of sweaty. I threw on a fleece, and then I was like this [LAUGHS] on the same. Like, what is this about? Because the agenda was like, we have to talk about a student. I'm like, all of us? We all on a Friday morning before the semester started needs to talk about a student?
So anyway, I get on this thing, hair not brushed, sort of post-sweat, really angry, to be frank. We had a text stream going behind the scenes with a few choice words as the meeting began. And then all of a sudden, I look up, and there are all of these people on a Zoom call that I didn't recognize, including a judge. And so I was like, oh man, somebody did something wrong. So I was like, say nothing. I was texting my friends. Nothing. Say nothing. If we've learned anything from cop shows, we know. Don't incriminate yourself.
And so here I was, angry and then sort of worried that we were all getting in trouble, that somebody had violated some rule. And the meeting started, and my husband joined, like, all casual, you know? And so the meeting started, and the head of the Alumni Association started saying, well, every year we give this award. And I was sort of tuned out. I was like, oh, Margaret Rintamaa got an award, like this other really great faculty person in my department. I was like, here we go. Yay, Margaret. OK, can I get back to my Friday?
And so anyway, they go on and on. And I'm like, no. It couldn't be. Because they start naming-- so I start to see some of my students on the Zoom call. What is Bonnie doing here? And so then I started to get a little-- but anyway, it turns out they say my name. And I just burst into tears I mean, I just lost it. And so anyway, they asked me to say something at some point and I was just in an ugly cry at that point. I mean, I had no idea. And there's a great part in the film where my husband comes up-- because he was just downstairs and kissed me on my forehead. And he's like, you need to pull it together here. This film's going viral.
So anyway, it was just, like I said in the earlier interview, it couldn't have happened at a better time, a better space. And the Zoom call was just hilarious. And I will deny all accounts of that back text stream where I was swearing. I thought they were going to take me out in cuffs. You know, you're like, did I hurt someone? Did I do something wrong? Surely, I've done something wrong, and now I'm getting arrested in front of all these good people. But anyway, it turns out it wasn't that. It was a great teacher award.
KODY KISER: So how do your students inspire you?
KATHLEEN SWANN: Well it's interesting that you say that or you ask that. I've been here. This is my 17th year at the University of Kentucky, and there's a lot of pressure here to become famous as a professor in your field. And part of that means that you have to be a little distracted, that you don't become famous when you're focusing necessarily on what's happening in the classrooms.
And one of the lessons of this past year-- I was doing a documentary project where I was functioning as a director and going into schools filming my students teaching. And I had this realization watching one of the students work with a small group of teachers at Woodford County High School. And I looked at him, and I thought, he is an amazing teacher.
It was just like watching a savant, a teaching savant, work with these students, these six students, on reading primary sources. And no one was watching. I mean, we were watching with cameras. But I was watching him thinking, this is what he does every day. This is what our teachers do every day. They work in what I call small spaces, these small spaces of the classroom that have this profound impact, that these six students that he happened to be working with that day will never be the same. They had this amazing experience. That will be-- and they have him every day.
It's sort of life changing. And for me, that was a reminder that the small spaces matter and that at the University of Kentucky, what really matters to me is being present in the classroom-- not just teaching my classes but to be really present and listen to the students and listen to what they can teach you.
So for me, I've sort of-- I feel like I've always had a little bit of that in me anyway, but you can kind of drift after 16 or 17 years. And this was really a year where I recommitted to the small spaces of my classroom and the courses that I teach and, even though I've taught the one for 17 years to just really dig down, dig deep. No one's watching except my students. And that matters.
KODY KISER: You present them with a lot of information and material through their coursework. But what do your students teach you?
KATHLEEN SWANN: Well, I think that one of the things that students do is they hopefully bring to the classroom a learning mindset-- a mindset that I'm here to learned something. I mean, we hope they're like that. And so I think being here for a long time, I've been in education now for 25 years, maybe more than that-- none that I'll admit, right?
But you can start to feel like you're an expert. And maybe I think what they teach me is that we're always learning and that we're learning together and that we're in this together. So I appreciate the ways in which students remind me of my inadequacy, that I'm not an expert, and that we're all learning together, that I might have something to offer. Hopefully, I have something to offer but that I don't have everything, that they have to bring elbow grease into the classroom, and that we're working through these ideas together.
KODY KISER: How have they impressed or inspired you in dealing with this past year of remote learning?
KATHLEEN SWANN: I have been shocked at how well our students have done this year. We've been primarily remote most of the year and just recently met face to face. But you wouldn't have known it. You wouldn't have known it. They dug in. They were interested, interesting. They adapted to the online perpetual Zoom room and were present. They were ready to learn. They were ready to do this thing, and they didn't complain at all. I expected more complaints. I expected my teacher evaluations to suffer, and they didn't. We had a great experience to the point where I sort of wondered, should we stay online? Because you get to save so much time.
I miss being face to face, and last week was such a great reminder of what it means to be face to face. But I feel like the students have adapted beautifully. I've heard of situations where students turn off cameras, and they're not really there. That hasn't been my experience. My experience has been that they're queued up, ready to go, doing the work. It just has been-- to say that they've been unfazed, I think, would be wrong. I think we've all been impacted, but I feel like the learning experience has just picked up, and they've been super flexible and nimble as we've dealt with the challenges of this year.
KODY KISER: We've all struggled over this past year plus. When students do struggle, what advice do you give them in regards to reaching out for assistance?
KATHLEEN SWANN: You know I'm surprised. I am surprised sometimes that students don't feel like they can reach out to us. I had one student say one time that our offices feel like Narnia, which was really startling to me because I thought, you know, what would it be like to be in their shoes looking at-- I feel human, not superhuman. But I feel very human, and it's interesting to look at myself through those eyes, you know, that she's a professor. She's going to probably provide a grade for me at some point. And so there's this power dynamic that I think they often feel that, for me, isn't there.
I love having relationships with students and sort of talking about all of education that goes beyond sort of the academic piece in the classroom. And so I think the best advice that I could give is write an email. Stop by my office. Let me know how you're doing. Tell me what's on your mind, what you're struggling with. Those are the kinds of relationships that kind of keep us in this gig for the long haul. They're the things that make us happy, the things that we go home at the end of the day, and we feel valued.
And in a big institution like the University of Kentucky, we can sort of lose sight of our value because there are a lot of people running around doing lots of really cool things. But the things that really bring value at the end of the day are those moments that we have with students. So I guess I would just say be bold. Step outside of your comfort zone. We're not Narnia, you know? We're human, and we've got ears. We love to listen to students.
KODY KISER: What does it mean to you to win this award knowing that it's fully student nominated?
KATHLEEN SWANN: Well, it's really hard to put into words what this award has meant this year in this moment in this time. If anybody were to roll tape when I found out, I burst into tears, and I'm not a crier. And I was just-- I was really overwhelmed. I think you do something for a while, and UK is a place where, again, value ebbs and flows.
And so I think I've been an ebbing period where I'm like, what am I doing? And so the award just reminded me why I love to do what I do, why I'm here. And the fact that it came from students, I think if President Capelouto called me and gave me an award, it wouldn't mean as much as it had that it came from the students that know me best and that they took the time out of their very busy schedule to say this relationship has been this valuable to me.
And so I think of all the years that if I were to win it, this year was just particularly important because of the way in which it challenged us all in so many ways. And so while my husband would argue that it would have been better to have won it last year when we would have gotten basketball tickets and been on the front line and there would have been some fanfare, this year was just important sentimentally, I guess, because I think we all needed to be reminded about what's important and why we do what we do.
KODY KISER: What do you hope to bring to your classes to motivate and inspire your students?
KATHLEEN SWANN: Well, I think when I first started teaching, I thought teaching was a performance. And I grew up in theater, and so I worked really hard to be theatrical and engaging and animated. I do less of that now because I believe teaching is about something else. My work is in inquiry, where the curriculum is really driven by problems that students have to wrestle with, problems that don't have easy answers that I might have some insight into, but I don't have all the right answers.
And so I think now when I develop courses or when I teach courses, it's really wrapped around vexing, wicked problems, questions that we have in education. And my expectation of students in a genuine fashion is that they come ready to wrestle with those questions.
And so I think where I started my career with lots of answers or what I thought was answers delivered in such a way that I thought would be animated, now there's less of that and more focus on how can students wrestle with the real issues that face teachers and in social studies in particular? And I think that is engaging. My hope is that that's engaging, that if you put ideas in front of students that are worth spending time on, regardless of me, that the ideas are what engage them. And so I think that's sort of how I've grown as an educator and how I check myself if I get out of whack.
KODY KISER: How do you think this award will carry you forward?
KATHLEEN SWANN: Well, I think it's easy at a big institution to get discouraged-- maybe in any institution to get discouraged because much of what we do is invisible to people above us or beside us. It happens in the small spaces of the classroom. And so it's easy to get discouraged or feel invisible or to feel like you're not valued. And awards like this, particularly that are really prestigious, help me remember that this work is meaningful, that this work is valuable, that I have value-- that in this big institution of the University of Kentucky, I matter.
And I wish everyone had that feeling. It feels a little selfish, actually, to say that right now because I think what that award did for me was make me feel valued at a time where maybe that felt a little slippery. And I guess the way that would carry me forward is to think about how can I make others feel valued. Maybe I can't give them the great teacher award, but maybe I can say, wow, will you tell me what you're doing in your class, and to be heard or I think to be a better colleague in that way, to make sure to listen to students when they. I think I try to do that but to realize they are listening, you know?
KODY KISER: What is your personal teaching philosophy?
KATHLEEN SWANN: Yeah, so I think I alluded to it earlier. My teaching philosophy, like everyone's teaching philosophy, has really evolved. And so what I really come back to when I'm teaching are three ideas. One is what are the questions that students are deliberating. Do these questions matter? Are they authentic questions that aren't just traps or gotcha games, and I'm going to tell you the answer, but really deliberative types of questions? And then what are the ideas that I'm putting-- what are, we call in social studies, the sources?
What is the matter that I'm having you deliberate those questions around? Whose perspective is in these sources that you're reading, that you're thinking about? Are there a variety of perspectives that you're thinking about these questions, and then ultimately, what am I having you do to demonstrate your understanding and to learn?
So I come back to this sort of mantra of questions, tasks, and sources. What are the questions that I'm asking students? What are the tasks that I'm asking them to accomplish, and what are the sources that I'm putting in front of them? And how do those three things come together in a meaningful way? And then beyond that, am I creating a classroom where every student matters, where every voice is heard? And am I setting up conversations so that no one is marginalized, everyone is participating, and that even quiet voices are heard?
KODY KISER: What are your students like overall?
KATHLEEN SWANN: Well, I think-- so first of all, I teach in the social studies education program. So when students come to me, they're interested in becoming a social studies teacher. So first of all, they've got to have something going for them because they want to be teachers, and they want to give back to the world. So the majority, if not all of the students that I teach, have a generous spirit. They want to contribute to the state of Kentucky or beyond that, and they want to work with young people. And that takes a certain kind of person not to mention student. So they're already great to work with on just that.
Beyond that, our students are super smart. They come to us from arts and sciences where they get a great education learning about history, economics, geography, political science. And so I really feel our role is to leverage that sort of great academic experience and add onto that stuff about how to teach adolescents. So our students come in, A, with typically great dispositions to work with high school students. They come in super smart, where they have a really strong academic preparation, mostly from the University of Kentucky. And I think they're mature.
I think for the most part, they're mature. I tend to teach graduate students here, ones that are doing sort of a fifth year master's degree or ones that are coming back as doctoral students. And I always say that I'll take the Pepsi Challenge with anybody, any of my colleagues across the country, is that I'll take the Pepsi Challenge. My students are the best. You're not going to beat them whether you're at Harvard or University of North Carolina or Washington State. We got it going on here at UK.
The other thing that I think that-- much is said about diversity here at UK, and one of the things that I think we don't talk enough about is the regional diversity here in the state of Kentucky. We have students who come from very rural areas. We have students that come from very urban areas, and we have students that come from anywhere in between-- suburban, suburban adjacent.
And so I've really enjoyed teaching students, particularly that are first generation university students. I find their stories just captivating. That's not my story. And so I'm always amazed at sort of the hurdles they've had to jump in order to do this thing at the University of Kentucky and to sort of make it through the maze here. So I would say the other thing that our students are is they're diverse, but they also have a lot of grit. They tend to have a lot of grit.
KODY KISER: What, to you, is the most rewarding aspect of teaching?
KATHLEEN SWANN: I think that the most rewarding-- well, there's two things that I would say that speak to how we get rewarded as teachers. One is I think that we can find meaning, existential meaning, in teaching. I think that at the end of the day, when you work with others and when, in my particular case, work with future teachers, you just feel like you're contributing not only to their lives but to the state. We have a land grant mission, and I came here for a reason because I came from a land grant institution.
I'm here at a land grant because I like that notion of serving something greater than myself, serving even beyond the students. I like serving-- and that sounds really cheesy. But on the hardest of days where you go home and wonder, why am I doing this, well, you can find meaning. You always can answer that question with a, so what? So I think that there's meaning there. I think beyond that, it's a constantly humbling profession. And so it's never finished, which is irritating at times. But I think for me, I like this process of reinvention. I like the risk of teaching.
I like the triumph of teaching. I sometimes like to fail at teaching because then it makes me double down and get better at it. And so for me, it's that constant process of sort of renewal brought about by the humility of teaching that I think ultimately helps me feel like I'm doing something that matters.
KODY KISER: Is there anything you'd like to say specifically to the students who nominated you?
KATHLEEN SWANN: What would I like to say to the students that nominated me? I mean, I guess-- I mean, on level just to say thank you, but that seems sort of lame. I mean, everything seems sort of cliche that I'm thinking about right now. I'm deeply humbled that they chose me. There's lots of great professors and faculty and staff here at UK. I think it's our greatest strength are the people.
I remember when I came here, my advisor, my doctoral advisor, said, don't look at the bricks and mortar, although we've got pretty bricks and mortar 17 years later. At the time, not so much, you know? He said, look at the people. That's what you're really investing in. And I guess when I think about the students who nominated me, I think they had a lot of great people to choose from, and I feel humbled that they chose me. And I'm super thankful. Like, of all the years to do this, this was the year. And I appreciate the ways in which that has sustained me during such a challenging time.
KODY KISER: So the Alumni Association has carried on the tradition of this award for decades. What would you like to say to them?
KATHLEEN SWANN: Well, what I would like to say to the Alumni Association is thank you for valuing faculty. Thank you. There's a lot of pressure, I think, to move up the food chain, to move out of the classroom and move into administration or move into something. Fill in the blank. And I have to check myself all the time because I don't really want to do any of that.
17 years later, I still love being in the classroom. I love teaching my load here at the College of Ed. But it's not something that's really valued in sort of the signature at the end of an email. Like, I've noticed recently that people's email signatures are becoming longer and longer with accolades. And mine is pretty much the same. I've moved assistant to associate, and now I'm a full professor. But at full professor, there's no mobility. There's no mobility unless you want to move into some administrative position, which I don't think I do.
And so awards like this reward the small spaces of the classroom and the places that aren't necessarily acknowledged during salary compression, during end of year faculty meetings when people are sort of rising up the food chain. It's made me feel that I'm not doing anything wrong by just staying where I am. And so I'm very appreciative of sort of not just the award but the prestige of the award.
I've had more people outside of this college write me and are impressed. And not that I'm in it for that, but it's clear that this award-- my husband looked it up and told me the history of the award. And I'm just honored that I'm in that list and that it just came along at the right time in my career to just give me the boost that I needed. And so I'm thankful. There's a lot of talk about buildings. There's a lot of talk about student success.
There's a lot of talk about moving up administrative ranks. There's not a lot of talk about how do we reward the faculty beyond sort of the blanket we love our faculty statements. This is one of those-- gestures is too small of a word, but this is one of those things that UK does that matters to the rank and file faculty who sort of do the small spaces work.
KODY KISER: What do you try to teach your students that goes beyond the textbook material?
KATHLEEN SWANN: Well, if our students had a fault-- and all students that go into teaching tend to have this, me included-- is that we see depictions of teachers in feature films. And They're Mr. Holland's Opus. They're Dead Poets Society. They're movies where the teacher sort of is this massive presence and knows a lot. And so I think a lot of times students come in with an idea of what teaching is going to be. But they also come in thinking they have the answers that they're just going to share with their students.
And I think good teaching, maybe good human life, is about relationships, whether you're dealing with adolescents or whether you're dealing with colleagues or peers, that you-- I think my hope is that my students walk away understanding that they're in relationship. They're in an intellectual relationship with their students, and it is not a matter of coming in and just showing off what you know-- and I've been guilty of that-- but really going in again and creating a space where students and you are wrestling with a problem, and you're helping lead them through a process to help them find answers. So that's my hope, and I think there's life lessons in that.