Luncheon Remarks - Martha Kanter

U.S. Professors of the Year Awards
Remarks for Martha Kanter, Under Secretary
U.S. Department of Education
National Press Club - Washington, D.C.
Thursday, Nov. 15, 2012

Thank you for your kind introduction and thank you even more for the invitation to join you here today to celebrate excellence in the teaching of our nation's undergraduates.

Throughout my teaching career, I continually looked to role models and mentors, like each of you, to help me become the very best professor I could be. And when I became part of an intentional community of practice with other professors, those conversations and reflections probably helped me the most.

Even now, I am still in touch with many professors from my field and today, more than ever, I am proud of the career choice I made, not only because of the part I played in changing student lives for the better, but also because of the exceptional quality of character that is common to the professors I know, the leaders who have stepped up and dedicated themselves to helping prepare the next generation of active and engaged citizens to2make their contributions to the health and future of our nation.

As one of my heroes, Nelson Mandela, famously observed, "Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world." We have a long road ahead of us in changing our nation and the world, but when I think of the changes I have witnessed in just my lifetime, the progress we've made in civil rights, the movement toward equity and fairness, a growing concern for the environment, the increasing awareness of social inequality, and the fight for justice, I see the hard work of our nation's professors who've been quietly making a difference—one classroom, and often one student, at a time. I can't imagine more important or meaningful work.

That is why I am so grateful to The Council for the Advancement of Education and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching for the work you have been doing since 1981 to recognize outstanding teaching at the collegiate level. I know that most of us will agree that we are deeply fortunate in this country to have the world's most respected system of higher education.

We are also rightfully proud of our research universities, which have generated an enormous share of the progress in technology, science, engineering, agriculture, and so many other fields, even entertainment, that power today's global economy. What is special about today, however, and indeed what has been special about this gathering for more than 30 years now, that the Professors of the Year awards focus singularly on excellence in teaching, which I know we all agree is core to the learning that propels the future of our nation.

And that is really why I can't think of any place I'd rather be. Teaching is at the heart of everything we do as educators, and looking for ways to support and elevate the teaching profession has been at the center of the work that President Obama and Secretary Duncan have lead during these past four years. As Secretary Duncan often says, "our single most important goal is to make sure there is a great teacher in every classroom in America."

That is why I came here to celebrate with you today. Because we can't scale great teaching, or help others become great teachers, unless we define it first. And one of the best ways to do that is to shine a spotlight on the best among us at every level of the profession and to hold you up with pride for the whole world to see, as examples worthy of our respect, our appreciation and our emulation. So in that sense, although we culminate this annual award process today, it is really a beginning, too. It's the first days these professors will carry this award, and the first day the honor of that award can be used to help other educators recognize the qualities in them and the practices that others can draw upon to achieve the goals that drew them into our noble profession.

In recent months, teaching has been at center stage in the news with the advent of Massively Open Online Courses or MOOCs. It has become increasingly clear that teaching practices at the collegiate level are being buffeted by sweeping changes, maybe even transformational changes, brought on not only by changes in learning sciences research and technology, but also by draconian budget cuts at the state level, which have forced especially our public institutions to do more with less.

When I think about these sweeping changes in teaching and learning, I continually remind myself that professors are inventing and reinventing these changes all the time and it's up to all of us in the profession to leverage the best of what we create to build the educated society that we so desperately need. I have a deep faith that the professoriate will continually strive to improve teaching and learning and I remain optimistic about our profession and our future. Outstanding teaching produces the outstanding results we see in our graduates and my goal, Secretary Duncan's goal and President Obama's goal is to stand shoulder to shoulder with those who are committed to drawing more high quality talent into the teaching profession at all levels and supporting them in their growth and professional development to become the education workforce we need for the 21st century.

That's also why we are working in the Department of Education to strengthen our nation's schools of education and alternative providers and putting a spotlight and making more transparent the results they achieve. We believe that students who want to enter the profession should be able to find out which programs offer the best preparation, and which programs have a track record of producing highly effective teachers. Like the awards issued here today, that information can serve as a beacon to others, encouraging them to reach for ever higher levels of effectiveness. I believe that the act of giving awards to the very best professors here today will make a real difference, not only for the recipients, but also for the thousands of other professors and students whose lives will be influenced over time by your examples!

Let me conclude with a story from one of my many role models: Decades ago, after a celebrated international career on the stage, the world-famous violinist Jascha Heifetz became a professor of music at UCLA. When someone asked him why he left the glamour of performing to become a teacher, Heifetz answered, "Violin-playing is a perishable art. It must be passed on; otherwise it is lost." Then he went on to say, "I remember my old violin professor in Russia. He said that if I worked hard enough, someday I would be good enough to teach."

Those of you who are honored here today know that is not the path to glory or personal satisfaction that brought you to this profession. It's likely that what brought you here and what keeps you here is to be part of a profession that enables you to give your students the opportunity to lead successful lives as engaged citizens and productive workers in a democracy that we are building for the future of our nation.Thank you again for inviting me to join you. I look forward to hearing from each of the honored professors and to make sure that President Obama and Secretary Duncan know how much we appreciate the hard work that brought each of you to receive these distinguished awards today. Thank you.