Brian P. Coppola - Acceptance Speech

2009 Outstanding Community Colleges Professor of the Year
Professor of Sociology
Collin College, Frisco, Texas

I prided myself on being a good student-well at least from kindergarten through second grade. And then it happened, I made my first B in art class. (And I thought the ashtray I made for my grandmother was pretty darn nice.) I was never told why my would-be perfect report card continued to be stained by Bs in art. What I learned as a child was that I was not an artist.

On the first day of a graduate seminar, Dr. James Kitchens asked our class of 40, "Raise your hand if you can draw or paint." One hand rose.

"And raise your hand if you can sing." Two hands rose.

"If you had been asked these questions in kindergarten, how many of you would have identified yourself as artists and singers?" All hands rose.

I enrolled in Dr. Kitchen's classes for 10 straight semesters. I already had a love of sociology, but what he did was challenge me to understand myself, discover my purpose and live with meaning. And I found that purpose and meaning in the art of teaching.

I am deeply grateful to receive this award from The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and CASE. Thank you. And thanks to TIAA-CREF and Phi Beta Kappa for contributing to today's wonderful events. There is no greater honor than to be recognized for my art, my passion, my purpose.

My grandfather, a first-generation Italian American, owned a grocery store in an impoverished, minority neighborhood in Dallas. In the midst of the turmoil of the 1960s, he led a life worth modeling, selling groceries on credit, personally delivering groceries to the elderly and infirm, valuing each person equally. The racial epitaphs I heard in the world around me conflicted with my childhood experiences in his store, the friends I made, and the kindness I witnessed.

Perhaps this is what inspired my deep concern for social justice and my desire to cultivate an appreciation of diversity. With sociology, I strive to help students put their lives into perspective and empower them to make choices to improve their own lives and the lives of others.

Although I have been called naïve and idealistic, these are the goals that motivate me, and I believe this is a way I can make a small difference. I have to continually ask myself, "What is wrong with wanting to make this world a better place? Should I avoid controversial topics? Am I afraid to encourage students to think?" My experience has taught me that if I honor the sacredness of each life that enters my classroom, respect the experiences that each student brings and create a safe environment for students to express themselves, then I can facilitate a classroom of open dialogue, questioning and critical thinking. Our job as teachers is not to weed out the brightest and the most motivated. What we do, regardless of our discipline, is assist students in realizing their potential and perhaps discovering their purpose.

There is so much to learn about learning. I am not an expert teacher, but I will forever be a student of pedagogy. And Collin College is the right place to do that. President Cary Israel and Vice President of Strategic Initiatives Brenda Kihl, thank you for celebrating with me today and for supporting innovation at our outstanding institution of higher education. And thank you, Dr. Debra St.John, my teaching partner in our integrated sociology and political science course. There is nothing that I have accomplished that I have done alone, so I humbly accept this prestigious award on behalf of all the faculty, administrators, and staff at Collin College.

I must thank my students for what they give to me. They make each day a novel and exhilarating experience. They keep me grounded, and they inspire me. It is an honor to momentarily be a part of their lives.

Finally and importantly, I am grateful for my supportive and loving family. Robert, Troy, Susana-thank you. And Mom, you comforted me when I made that first B and you nurtured this love for learning and respect for education. I especially thank you.

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