Dr. Brent Kendrick, a longtime English professor at Lord Fairfax Community College, was presented with the first Susan S. Wood Professorship award (and a check for $3,000) at this year’s New Horizons conference in Roanoke.
With final exams now behind both him and his students, Dr. Kendrick was eager to take part in our Take Five series.
1 – What was your reaction when you learned that you had won? Did you prepare an acceptance speech for the ceremony?
People who know me know that I am rarely at a loss for words! After all, I teach English, and I am certain that my students would tell you that I can be exhaustive, and, probably, exhausting, too! I confess, however, that when Chancellor DuBois called to tell me that I had won the Susan S. Wood Professorship for Teaching Excellence, I was nearly speechless! For starters, it’s not every day that you get a phone call from the Chancellor. Beyond, that, however, I thought the award recipient had been notified weeks earlier, so I assumed that I had not been selected. So I was thrilled, to say the least, but at the same time, I was humbled and bowled over by the honor.
Yes, I prepared an acceptance speech for the New Horizons Awards Ceremony. I had been asked to limit my speech to a minute or two. However, as I went up on stage, I happened to recall a comment that one of my favorite poets, Lucille Clifton, made: “One should wish to celebrate more than one should wish to be celebrated.” So, I decided to abandon my script, and to use her quote as a spontaneous springboard to celebrate the magical work that everyone throughout the VCCS does, through education, to transform lives—student by student, day by day; to celebrate Dr. Cheryl Thompson-Stacy—President of Lord Fairfax Community College—for her ongoing support and leadership and for her strong endorsement of my application; and, finally, to celebrate Dr. Susan S. Wood who is indeed a pinnacle of excellence in education and a pinnacle of excellence in academic leadership.
2 – This is not the first VCCS award you’ve won. In 2010, you were presented with the Chancellor’s Award for Teaching Excellence (CATE). What do you suppose is noteworthy about your approach to classroom instruction?
My students could no doubt provide better insights than I. However, what I do in class is driven by two forces.
First, I always share my teaching philosophy as part of my introduction. It’s a simple one that I gleaned from Gilbert Highet’s The Art of Teaching. I read it as a sophomore in college, and it has stuck with me down through the years:
“Know your subject;
Love your subject.
Know your students;
Love your students.”
I want my students to know my own level of competency to teach English and to lead them in their educational pursuits, and I want them to know that I am passionate about English. More important, I like to make a commitment to them upfront that I will come to know them collectively and individually and that I teach for the sheer joy of teaching, of sharing my knowledge with them, of watching them grow personally and socially and intellectually and professionally. I want them to know that I am committed to ensuring their full success. I believe in creating successes one student at a time. My approach is a simple one but it is honest and sincere. My students respond affirmatively, and they succeed.
Second, I live a simple, rather quiet life—one that is relatively free of distractions. It allows me to have singleness of purpose and singleness of focus. Teaching for me is a calling—it’s nearly spiritual in nature. I know that I am the primary beneficiary of such a life, but I like to think that my students are beneficiaries as well. As I tell them—with no embarrassment whatsoever—that I go to bed thinking about teaching and about my students, and that I wake up thinking about teaching and my students. The truth of the matter is—I do.
I love watching my students when I share that statement with them. I enjoy sharing my joy and passion because my hope is that they can see in me the same possibilities for their own lives. My hope is that they will tap into something—anything—that turns them on and makes them eager to get up in the morning and that sustains them through the end of their day—for a lifetime.
For years, I fought sharing with others the spiritual aspect of my work, but over time I have gotten somewhat over me, and I have come to embrace my work—my teaching—as my soul’s salvation. My students sense this passion—feel it—and, more than anything else about me, they note how passionate and enthusiastic I am about teaching.
3 – What prompted you to become an educator?
During my very early childhood, my mother was a fundamentalist minister. I still recall vividly listening to her preach and watching the congregation as they responded to her and as they were “slain in the Holy Spirit.” I was too young to understand fully the underlying meaning of her sermons or what it even meant to be “slain,” but I felt as if her words were somehow pure magic: souls were saved, bodies healed, and lives changed. At home my mother was a fervent prayer warrior, too. Her prayers were incredibly eloquent: she had read the Bible so many times that hers was perfect and powerful King James English.
So my mother established my love of language, encouraged me to listen to my heart and soul in all areas of my life, and showed, by example, the compelling power of passion. When I started school, that love was reinforced time after time after time, so much so that I got it into my head that words could change the world—that words might be the only thing that could change the world. By the third grade—after my teacher Marie Massie introduced me to the poetry of Robert Frost—I was hooked on language, and I knew that I wanted to become a college English professor. From that point forward, the path for me was clear.
Let me hasten to add that I have been blessed to have had exceptional educators surrounding me, nurturing me, and lifting me up, from grade school all the way through graduate school. They all served as role models, and I found myself being influenced by each of them. They led happy, fulfilled lives, and they all radiated joy. I not only wanted to be like them but also to be one of them!
Looking back, I can see that the educators in my life were all student centered. I know now—and knew then—that they cared about all of their students. It was real. It was genuine. I could feel it every day in every class. I hope that I am as student centered as they were. I strive to be.
4 – Your career as an educator spans decades. How are your students different from say, 20 years ago? What, in your opinion, is essential to their success in the classroom?
My immediate reaction is that today’s students—all of them–are always plugged in! As I walk the halls of LFCC, I see all the students staring into their smartphones, and the students are always smiling as if their smartphone world is the best of all possible worlds! (As an aside, I read an article the other day in the Washington Post about officials in Augsburg, Germany, becoming concerned that pedestrians were so busy staring into their smartphones that they were ignoring traffic lights. To solve the problem and to ensure pedestrian safety, the city has installed traffic lights in the pavement so that pedestrians looking down at their phones won’t miss the traffic lights.)
If I extend my notion of “plugged in” so that it covers all technology available today—especially the Internet—I would say that is a major change for students and for everyone. We are all being transformed by technological advances, and we are all grappling with ways to use the technology in the world of learning.
Also, I think students today have far greater global awareness than they did twenty years ago. This is partly because of the technology, but I think it’s also because we have a greater number of international students in our classes, even at community colleges.
Finally, it seems to me that students today are more practical in terms of career goals. When I talk with them in class—as I often do—about their educational pursuits and where they see themselves in five or ten years, they indicate that they will be professionals whose work life will not spill over into their personal lives.
What is essential to student success in the classroom? For starters, it takes hard work. I think that’s essential to success in any endeavor. But hard work alone won’t bring student success. It takes active engagement and that, sometimes, can be a challenge for students. I like to think that’s where we as educators play crucial roles. We have to use every strategy that we possibly can to get students engaged—hooked on learning, if you will—and to keep them engaged. I am happy to see the old maxim that has been around in the medical field for a long time—See One, Do One, Teach One—being applied to many other fields, including teaching: flipped classrooms, collaborative learning projects, and team-based learning. Student success is a student/faculty partnership.
5 – Can you tell us three things about yourself that are not common knowledge (i.e., hobbies, interests, etc.)?
I am reminded of something that confessional poet Anne Sexton once said: “I’ve told so much truth [about myself] in my poetry that I’m a fool if I say more.”
And, indeed, down through the years, I have told a lot about me! Let’s see, though, whether I can come up with three things that aren’t common knowledge.
First, I love to cook, and over the past decade or so, I have become quite accomplished with Thai cuisine. What I like about Thai food—aside from exquisite combination of sweet, sour, salty, and hot—is the process. Thai cooking takes a lot of prepping, and I find that to be relaxing.
Second, I love gardening. Living on a mountaintop in Shenandoah County, I am convinced that all the rocks in the county landed on our property! Every time I plant something, I dig out huge boulders—so many, in fact, that I have become rather good at building dry-stack stone walls that survive the heaves of winter freezes. Also, I split our own firewood with a maul. Aside from giving me a good workout, I find wood-splitting to be as good as meditation! I love splitting and then stacking the wood. It’s my way of bringing order to chaos.
Finally, most people don’t know that I bike indoors, usually 20 to 30 miles a day, 7 days a week. (I bike outdoors on weekends.) Several months ago, I calculated how many miles I had biked indoors over the span of the last eight years. I was surprised: 73,000. Actually, I was stunned. If I biked from West Quoddy Head, Maine to Point Arena, California—the two most distant points within the mainland United States—it would be 2,892 miles. Round trip: 5,784 miles. So, figuratively speaking, I biked from sea to shining sea and all the way back again, 13 times!
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