Kathryn C. Wetzel - Acceptance Speech

2011 Outstanding Community Colleges Professor of the Year
Kathryn C. Wetzel
Professor of Mathematics and Engineering, and Department Chair of Mathematics, Sciences and Engineering
Amarillo College
Amarillo, Texas

I would like to thank CASE and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching as well as TIAA-CREF, Phi Beta Kappa and all the other sponsors for this award honoring the teaching profession. When I received the phone call telling me that I was one of the four national winners, I was so shocked that I asked if they were sure!   

I never intended to be a teacher when I was growing up. I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do, but a high school math teacher, who knew me better than I knew myself, pushed me into nuclear engineering at Texas A&M University. Ten years later, my husband and I decided that I was going to quit my job as an engineer and stay home with our daughter. Finances were understandably tight but when groceries began to be considered a luxury item, I took my first part-time teaching job at the local community college, Amarillo College, out of desperation!

I say desperation because, although I had survived engineering, I was terminally shy in front of a group and was afraid I would not be able to speak a coherent sentence—much less explain difficult concepts—in front of a room full of students. To my surprise, that first night teaching was fun! I found I liked entertaining the group with stories and explanations as to why things worked like they did. My engineering background helped me to explain math concepts in real-world applications, although I have also been known to explain math in terms of family and people. Math is alive to me and various concepts have personalities. The students think this is very odd, to say the least, but say they often remember my stories when trying to apply the concepts.

After teaching part-time for a few years, I began teaching at AC full-time. I have been at AC for 26 years with the exception of one semester finishing my PhD and one year teaching engineering master’s classes at a research university. While I appreciated the experience at the university, I hurried back to the community college when the year was up where I found more satisfaction helping those who had not already proven to themselves that they could be successful.  

I believe that a fundamental need of every human being is to make a difference in the lives of others. Teaching allows me to make a difference in other people’s lives. I have had the privilege of helping others as a teacher of math courses from the developmental level to calculus, and as a teacher of engineering courses where I have had the opportunity to create two new courses. As a department chair, I am able to not only help my students, but the students of others as I support the other teachers in their endeavors and dreams for their students. And as the initiator of the award-winning Mathematics Outreach Center, I have been able to make a positive difference in thousands of students’ lives by providing free, drop-in tutoring and support for students. Six years after its implementation, the center now provides more than 23,000 hour-long tutoring sessions during the year and has become a model for similar centers across the nation.

I believe everyone should be a teacher at some time in their life. Not only will they develop a very real appreciation for all the hard work and effort that goes into being a good teacher, they will discover the joy of seeing the “light bulbs” turn on when students finally grasp some material they have never understood.  

Teaching changed me, helping me to become more assertive and outgoing while I worked diligently to help students struggling to learn. In the past, I have been asked to speak to new faculty about what teaching means to me. My conclusion is always this, “You will never teach your students as much as they can teach you. I will never make as positive a difference in their lives as they have made in mine.”

This award is a great honor, and I would like to thank God for pushing me into the teaching profession. I would also like to thank my husband, Lew, and my daughter, Shara, who were patient and supported me when I came home from a long day at work with papers to grade and lessons to prepare.  And, also, I’d like to extend my appreciation to my friends and co-workers and supervisors who supported me day-to-day and in the application for this award.

And last, but certainly not least, I want to thank all the thousands of students I have had the privilege to work with who taught me how to teach.  

Thank you!