Almost all of us have had the experience of being in a classroom with a teacher who simply inspires us to learn, know and explore. When this happens, the feeling is magical. Going to this class and being in the presence of that teacher brings out the very best in us.
Perhaps Robert Frost was correct in saying that there are two types of teachers: "The kind that fills you with so much quail shot that you can't move, and the kind that just gives you a little prod behind and you jump to the skies." It was my great privilege to have a number of people prod me. They were teachers and professors and directors of theatrical productions -- and coaches as well. I can call them by name and recall in detail what I learned from them, and, just as important, how they made me "jump to the skies."
All these years later -- I started college nearly a half century ago -- I try my best to be one of those teachers when I have the privilege of returning to the classroom. This happens every January at Centre College, where I am president, when I teach a class on leadership called "Rainmaking" during our three-week CentreTerm.
I am asked often why it matters for me, as a college president with considerable duties, to be engaged in the classroom.
Don't I have better, more important, things to do with my time?
The reasons are numerous and wrapped around my good fortune to work at a place where we are committed to putting first-rate, gifted teachers in front of bright and hard-working students. Truly, the number of legendary teachers at Centre is disproportionate, and I say so not just based on my own bias.
Mary Daniels, a member of our Spanish faculty, is the current Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching Kentucky Professor of the Year, and she is one of many Centre professors who have won this award. In fact, seven have been so honored since 1999. U.S. News & World Report has also ranked the Centre faculty as high as number five in the nation for best undergraduate teaching.
Of all the rankings we might celebrate, these are key, because they involve the most important aspect of what we do: educating and inspiring young men and women for meaningful lives of work and service.
I am particularly reminded of this each January, and I feel lots of pressure -- the good kind -- to deliver an experience that is challenging and inspiring and worthy all at once. Personally, teaching is a kind of gift to myself, inasmuch as it allows me the opportunity to interact closely with some small number of Centre students. The annual experience also grounds me, reminding me how hard it is to be a really good teacher.
In addition, my involvement in the classroom sends an important signal to the College's trustees, parents, and donors. It suggests that what occurs in Centre's classrooms, laboratories, and performance spaces matters most, so much so that I set time aside to teach, preparing my own lectures and grading my own papers.
To this extent, my involvement in the classroom sends a very clear signal to students as well that teaching is central to their College's mission, and that their College's first obligation is to be a place where they are challenged, supported, and transformed as learners.
Yes, Centre is and will remain a place that values and supports research and scholarship, particularly when it engages our undergraduate students, but the thing to be prized above all else is teaching.
In truth, I don't think I measure up to Centre's high bar, but the effort I make each January causes me to appreciate and honor all the more my own teachers and those men and women on our faculty who deliver an education that is extraordinary.
The experience keeps me humble and grateful all at once, not to mention hopeful that I've prodded my own students to "jump to the skies."