There’s a story about Dean Smith — maybe it happened, maybe it is apocryphal — that he was talking with a student in his office when his administrative assistant interrupted to say that the president of the United States was on the phone. Coach Smith told her to take a message, that he was with a student.
I think about that story as I teach at Dean Smith’s university. His emphasis on students helped me figure out what type of teacher I wanted to be. It’s well known that he was always there for his players regardless of when they played. I had similar relationships with a few professors at my college. Could I do the same?
I’ve tried, but the truth is that my real motivation is the fear that I’ll be bad. I wasn’t an academic or have a degree beyond a bachelor’s in English. The students – or their parents – pay good money for an education I am supposed to deliver, and I don’t want to disappoint them. It has helped form my teaching philosophy, which is that I don’t consider myself successful until my students are successful. And that start with being in my class and never stops.
So, it’s such an honor to win the Chancellor’s Student Undergraduate Teaching Award, an award in which students select the recipients. I’m flattered by the award, but even more humbled – and overwhelmed – by all the attention and praise my students and former students posted on social media and sent in texts and emails.
That — hearing from current and past students — was the actual award. It’s always amazed me how tenured professors — I’m an adjunct — are able to handle May. I connect with students over the course of a semester or, if I’m fortunate, a couple of semesters. We work on stories together. I yell at them; they yell back. We struggle with tone and accuracy and stories falling through. We laugh at it all. Then they graduate and leave me.
This award and the publicity that came with it caused dozens of students I hadn’t heard from in a while to reconnect. My heart is full.
Here are some of the responses on Twitter; others appeared in texts, on Facebook and Instagram. And sorry if I didn’t post yours. I had to stop somewhere.
I’ll begin with a tweet from Caroline Bass, who was a student I got to know when we were both on a UNC trip to Israel last June. I suspect that Caroline orchestrated and championed my nomination.
Congrats @johnrobinson on your teaching award. I’m grateful for everything I’ve learned from you about how to tell a story — but even more important, I’m grateful for the support and guidance you’ve given me for the past few years. No one deserves it more than you! pic.twitter.com/D2eL24Vv7h
— Danielle Chemtob (@daniellechemtob) April 17, 2020
I can’t think of anyone more deserving of UNC’s highest teaching award! You’re the reason I, and so many of your students, are journalists today. No matter how many times you made me rewrite a story, I’ll always be so lucky to have had 5 classes with you. Congrats @johnrobinson! pic.twitter.com/qz4S35p46w
— Cailyn Derickson (@cailynderickson) April 16, 2020
— Melanie Sill (@melaniesill) April 17, 2020
The students know lucky we are to have a journalist, a leader & now a professor like John Robinson our faculty! Now everyone knows. https://t.co/Aia67jirxh
— Susan King (@DeanSusanKing) April 17, 2020
You know those teachers who make you feel like you're capable and that your work matters? @johnrobinson is one of those — a quick look at the thread with this tweet will confirm. Congrats to one of the best! https://t.co/Iqk1NNSqwY
— han (@HannerMcClellan) April 17, 2020
Congratulations to @johnrobinson, who even five years, is still the little voice in my head telling me to write! A well-deserved award for an excellent educator!
— Samantha Fry (@SamanthaMFry) April 17, 2020
JR changed the trajectory of my life, and I’m sure he has done the same to dozens, if not hundreds, of other students. Very few college professors show the level of care for students that he does. So happy for you, JR!
— davidrallenjr (@davidrallenjr) April 17, 2020
And I saved the best for last! See how inspiring and encouraging I am!
now this, folks… this is the stuff of undergraduate teaching awards pic.twitter.com/82VRY9448L
— Hannah Lang (@hannaherinlang) April 18, 2020