Teresa C. Balser - Acceptance Speech

2010 Outstanding Doctoral and Research Universities Professor of the Year
Associate Professor, Department of Soil Science
University of Wisconsin Madison
Madison, Wis.

Thank you, Mr. Lippincott, and thank you all for being here today. It is truly a humbling experience to be accepting this award. Nothing in my experience has prepared me for an honor like this - especially to be recognized for doing something that I so love to do.

People sometimes ask me to talk about my teaching. They want to know -- what's the secret? They ask me: How do you do it? What techniques do you use? Do you use clickers? Groups? Online quizzes? And to be honest I usually don't know what to say. For me there is no secret formula. I just do what I do.

It's like that movie, "City Slickers." Who knows that one? (Can you believe it came out almost 20 years ago???) Remember? With Billy Crystal and Jack Palance? Billy plays a big-city radio ads salesman in the middle of a mid-life crisis who goes on a cattle drive in order to find himself, and Jack Palance is Curly, the tough-as-nails trail boss. He tells Billy, "You know what the secret of life is? It's this (holds up one finger). One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don't mean squat." And Billy says, "That's great, but what's the one thing?" And Curly replies, "That's what you gotta figure out."

So I thought about it. When it comes to being a teacher (and a human being, for that matter), what's my one thing? And here's what I came up with: It's not about me, but yet it's all about me.

I know - you're thinking: What??? What does that mean??? So let me try to explain.

It's not about me. This should be obvious: it's about them. Duh. About the students. Why else would we teach? But it's more than that. For me, "It's not about me" means put learning first. And I don't mean the way our good teaching scholars mean it: who here has heard of learner-centered classes? Yes. But that's not it. Putting learning first, for me, means doing whatever it takes to have learning happen. It means putting my ego aside - being more invested in learning happening than in looking good or being right. Being willing to look like a fool, to be wrong, to make mistakes.

My job is to set the stage and then get out of the way. It is not my stage. It's theirs. It's not about me.

But it's also all about me.

Huh?

By this, I mean that I have learned during my time as a professor and teacher that I have far more influence than I realize, and it is my responsibility to use that influence wisely. Whether I realize it or not, my students are always learning from me.

So despite the fact that it is not about me, it is also the truth that I matter quite a bit in the learning equation, and that is a responsibility I do not take lightly.

In addition, I have learned that (despite all my training as a scientist) the way that I matter really has nothing to do with intelligence, talent or hard work-although all of these are certainly important things. Instead, I matter most by my willingness to care-about the content and about the students.

First, yes, we do have to care about the content. Now, I know, we've all heard the debates about good learning sacrificed in order to cover the content, and that's not what I mean.

Who here has ever experienced a boring lecture? Did it seem like the teacher didn't care? Uh-huh. How about a lecture with a passionate teacher? Did it matter what the topic was? Yep, exactly.

So - I mean that we must in fact be passionate about our content! I mean, really LOVE it. For heaven's sake - I teach a class about dirt! And yet, I am passionate about it. And it works. (Really!) This happens in my other classes, too. I invite lots of guest presenters, and the ones the students love the most, no matter what the topic, are the ones who are passionate about their material - who obviously care.

Even more importantly, we have to not only know why we care, but also why anyone should care about the content. I teach future faculty that if they cannot answer that simple question - "Why is this important?" - before they enter the classroom, then they need to either go back to the drawing board or get rid of that content. If we ourselves don't know why it matters, then how can we expect the students to know why?

Ok - now - caring about content is all fine and well, but that's actually the easy part, really (we are after all academics! We love our content!). Harder, scarier, and yet far more important than my enthusiasm and passion about a topic, is my willingness to care about my students. To truly, deeply, honestly, care. To give myself to them, to believe in their ability to learn, even if they do not. How many of us have heard, or experienced, anecdotes about the Millennial generation? How they don't read, or they are entitled, or disconnected? It is my view that these stereotypes are as damaging as any stereotypes can be. My students are not these things: they are brilliant, caring, creative and engaged. And I would be doing them a serious disservice if I believed otherwise.

How do I know this? Partly, because I make an effort to get to know them as people, and I give them the opportunity to show me how brilliant and creative they are. But more importantly, I know this because I firmly and resolutely believe that they are all of these things. This matters. Think about a time when someone you respected or looked up to cared about you and believed in you. How did that make you feel? Did you feel capable? Confident? Ready to take-on anything? Yep. Exactly.

 So - I look for "David" in each student. Years ago, I was told a story about Michelangelo and his famous statue, David. The block of stone for David was flawed on the outside, and people asked Michelangelo how he created something as incredible as David from a flawed block, and he replied, "I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free."

 Michelangelo believed that every block of stone has a statue inside it, and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it. Now, I may not be a sculptor. But I do believe that, like the sculptor's blocks, every student - every person - has within them a masterpiece waiting to be brought out. Some of them are closer to its realization than others, and some are rougher around the edges than others. But everyone is a gift in their own way. And I have learned that when I look for David in my students, when I believe in the masterpiece within them, something magical happens. I see the students who have been told time and again they are not bright enough, quick enough or clever enough rise to the level of my regard. I see them stand a little straighter and begin to believe in themselves the way that I believe in them. It is among my greatest privileges to watch this happen.

So - it's not about me, my ego. But it is all about me, my willingness to care.

One more thing about caring, and our responsibility as professors, if I may: it not only matters, but it is absolutely imperative that we care - so that all those we encounter, all of the Tyler Clementi's from Rutgers, who think that they are alone realize that they ARE NOT; that someone cares and believes in them. So that all of those who think bullying is the only way to be important will realize that it IS NOT; that they are worth more than that.

To the extent that I am able to model caring and decency to my students, then I matter, and therefore it is all about me.

Even though it is not about me.

To close, I wish to say several thank yous. First, thank you to the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and to the Council for Advancement and Support of Education for sponsoring the award. And thank you to the people who nominated me.

And most importantly, thank you to all those I have been privileged to interact with and learn from my entire life. I am forever grateful for all the teachers, whether they realized it or not, that have helped me become the person I am. To all those who believed in me and saw David in me even when I couldn't see it myself. And so I say thank you to my parents, my students, my friends, my colleagues and those who may never know the ways in which they have touched me. I am grateful to you all. This award is not mine - it is ours. Thank you.


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