How educators can help set the stage for student success

In each issue of our digital magazine, Degrees, we feature an up-and-coming educator and give you a glimpse of their life inside and outside of the classroom. For issue four, we caught up with Kevin Gannon, professor of history and director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) at Grand View University.

Kevin Gannon is a proud military brat who moved every few years and spent some of his formative years in Japan. He wasn’t a stellar student, but fortunately had teachers who believed in him and were forgiving of his class clown antics. As he puts it, “Even though I was a punk, I cared about my education.”

As long as he can remember, he’s been interested in history. He pursued a bachelor’s from James Madison University, a master’s from the University of Illinois, and a doctoral degree from the University of South Carolina (phew, that’s a lot of degrees!) Oh, and as you might have noticed, he has a few tattoos.

Kevin loves knowing that he can find new and interesting methods to impact his students in a positive way. One day during class he set up a live video broadcast and discussion for his students with the author of a textbook he was using to teach the course.

How he hopes to influence his students

He insists he’s not a “kumbaya” kind of guy, but says he really wants his students to learn empathy and understand that they must be informed citizens—not just in terms of their national citizenship, but globally as well. He wants them to see history through an empathetic lens, with little personal bias and an understanding that everyone has a unique story and perspective.

Proudest teaching moment

Sometimes the best-planned lessons can go awry, but one day this happened to Kevin in the best of ways. He was teaching a lesson on the origins of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and explaining how this historical phenomenon impacted the way the western world perceived race. He wanted his students to understand a perspective in which race is socially and not biologically constructed, and to grasp the power of privilege in framing peoples’ worldviews.

A few minutes into the lesson, he was hearing input, personal stories, and perspectives from an African-Brazilian student, as well as a Norwegian student in his class that shaped the lesson better than he ever could have. This reiterated for him that sometimes if you let go of your plans and really listen to your students, you can learn a ton.

Secret weapon in the classroom

Passion! Kevin believes that if he shows his students how much he cares about history and about them, they will at the very least feel inspired to take an active interest in their own interest. And humor—he likes to crack jokes.

“My philosophy in the classroom is ‘do no harm,’ ” he tells us. If educators can provide a supportive environment and not damage students’ self-worth through negative comments and energy, then he believes they are setting the stage for success.

Kevin remembers back to an experience in first grade when he had just enrolled in a new school in Japan. On his first day he was in the library and overwhelmed by the size of the place and by being in a new school. He picked up a book on dinosaurs and went to check it out, only to be told by the librarian that the book was for students in fifth grade and he was too young to check it out, which made him cry.

That experience, he says, is the opposite of what educators should be doing. Encouraging learning and curiosity at every turn is key, Kevin believes. (Aww, poor little Kevin.) Kevin also uses a flipped classroom model with his students.

Where can you find him outside of class?

Kevin is an avid cyclist (are we detecting a trend among educators?) and enjoys unplugging and unwinding on long rides around the Des Moines area when the weather is nice.

Read the full interview with Professor Kevin Gannon.

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