I grew up in a rural Appalachian town in southern middle Tennessee. The high school dropout rate there is 20% (the U.S. average is around 6%), only 12% of residents hold a bachelor’s degree or higher, and less than 1% of the population holds a PhD. My parents fit within the lower tier of these statistics. My mom has a high school diploma, and my dad finished eighth grade but never matriculated into high school. I came very close to following this same path.
I failed first grade, was kicked out of my eighth grade algebra class, and because of my disdain for school, decided to pursue a technical training track in high school rather than prepare to attend college. I was nearly expelled from high school after being caught with a Zippo lighter in gym class my freshman year. I didn’t have the lighter because I smoked but because I thought it was cool. Had I been expelled, my fate as a student destined to fall into the low education attainment statistics that plague my community would have likely been sealed. However, instead of sending me to the principal’s office, the teacher who caught me with the lighter intervened directly. After an expletive-filled rant about how I was on track to fail or be kicked out of high school, the teacher made it clear that I could use education to radically change my life and career trajectory. Through his intervention, this teacher showed me that he cared, and he convinced me that mentors could help change my life. No teacher had connected with me like this before. He sent me home that day with the lighter and a challenge to change my life’s trajectory, and he told me that he and others would help me if I chose to be an active participant. A few days later, I found myself in the guidance counselor’s office enrolling in new courses that would allow me to attend college. A math teacher then took me under her wing. I spent a significant amount of time with this teacher, as she taught me geometry, precalculus, and trigonometry. She was dead set on getting me ready to go to college, and, well, she did. The rest is, as they say, history. I went on to graduate college with a BS degree in agricultural biotechnology with a 3.97 GPA and earn a PhD in biochemistry with a 4.0 GPA and an MBA with a 4.0 GPA.
As a college professor now, I believe that teaching and learning are done best in a student-centered environment in which students are actively engaged in the process. I also believe that teaching and learning are reciprocal: I teach and guide my students, and they teach and guide me. I vigorously challenge my students in didactic and experiential opportunities; in return, my students compel me to remain vigilant and sharp in my pedagogical practices, and as a result, I learn new concepts from them. I believe that students are inspired to model their teacher’s excellence; thus, I model a dedication to teaching, mentoring, lifelong learning, service, and working hard to cultivate a successful career. Through this philosophy, my ultimate goal is to have a career trajectory-building and life-changing transformative impact on my students.
My teaching philosophy and the way I operationalize my philosophy in the classroom and other learning environments are directly connected to my experiences as a young student. Just as my high school teachers did, I work to build a personal rapport with my students. This rapport requires a strong foundation of mutual collegiality and respect. I am convinced that it is important to treat students as teaching and learning colleagues. I believe it is important to earn respect from my students, and to earn their respect, I must give them respect. Much of my personal rapport is developed through the individualized mentorship I provide in which I guide, challenge, motivate, and encourage my students and hold them accountable. To accomplish this, I invest significant one-on-one time with them. Again, for this approach to work well, students must be actively engaged in the process. This approach grows out of the concern I have for my students. I care deeply about how they learn, what they learn, and the application of what they learn. I care deeply about their future careers and personal outcomes. My genuine commitment to students is deeply rooted in the care others had for me.
I believe that truly outstanding teachers are great at teaching within their discipline and at connecting with their students on a personal level such that they have a transformative influence on their students’ career and life trajectory. I want to make a positive impact on my students’ trajectories and support their educational, career, and life dreams, whatever those happen to be. I want to pay the transformative power of teaching and learning forward to my students for years to come.
My hope is that all teachers and mentors use their own positive learning encounters to shape their own transformational experiences for their students.
Nathan L. Vanderford is supported by the University of Kentucky’s Cancer Center Support Grant (NCI P30CA177558), the Center for Cancer and Metabolism (NIGMS P20GM121327), and the Appalachian Career Training in Oncology (ACTION) Program (NCI R25CA221765).