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Students fill out thank-you cards for their professors during the “Thank a Professor” event, held in December at Mann Library, Duffield Hall and Willard Straight Hall. The cards were delivered to professors in January.

Students thank professors for great teaching

Saying “thank you” – it’s a simple act but can mean so much, for both the giver and the receiver.

To close out fall semester, the Center for Teaching Innovation (CTI) hosted the inaugural Cornell “Thank a Professor” event. Students stopped by tables in Mann Library, Duffield Hall and Willard Straight Hall for the opportunity to write thank-you notes to professors who have meaningfully influenced their educational experience.

Pedro Perez, senior lecturer in the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, reads a letter sent to him by a student as part of the “Thank a Professor” program sponsored by the Center for Teaching Innovation.

The event, organizers said, helps build upon President Martha E. Pollack’s culture of “educational verve,” offering students an opportunity to express appreciation for teaching that inspires them.

Students rapidly warmed to the idea. Despite cold weather and pending final exams, students came out to write 380 notes thanking their professors for creating a memorable learning experience.

“Students were super-excited to fill out the cards,” said CTI event specialist Mia Spada, who led the program. “They were really appreciative.”

The cards were delivered to professors in January. “This is knowing you have reached [your students], which is really what we’re trying to do as professors,” Pedro Pérez, senior lecturer in the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, said upon receiving his cards.

Mathew L. Ouellett, executive director of CTI, called the program “another dimension of the campus conversation around teaching and learning – in this instance, the emotional aspect of the relationship.”

Said Spada: “I loved [Thank a Professor] because students’ comments were meaningful and heartfelt. I like that it’s handwritten, too, and not electronic.”

Expressing gratitude is a powerful way to support faculty who are stepping out of their comfort zone to try innovative ways to improve student learning.

“I think we should [thank professors] more often,” said Maya Cutforth ’20, who stopped by Willard Straight to thank her professors. “They are invested in our education; they are invested in making us better people. I really think we should express gratitude toward them more often.”

Said Juan-Luis González, a doctoral student in the field of plant pathology: “I really think it makes a difference for a professor’s career just for students to be grateful. Sometimes, as students, we forget that professors are people, and professors can forget that they like what they do.”

Noticing the work professors do to help students learn, Ouellett said, is an important part of the culture around teaching and learning.

“The typical cycle in the academic community is that both instructors and students wrap up their obligations and almost immediately leave at the end of classes,” he said. “This program is one way to be a little more human with each other.”

Students appreciated the opportunity because it allowed them to express their sense of belonging within the larger Cornell learning community. Kelvin Baafi ’22 was grateful for his professors’ efforts to help make him feel at home at Cornell. “It is a very good initiative to give back to them,” he said, “and encourage them for the wonderful work they are doing.”

Miranda Mix ’22 thanked her professors for her experience in field biology this semester. “It’s kind of blown my mind,” she said, “how much I’m able to get into the field and do things and be surrounded by people in the department who have a passion for the things that they love and that I love.”

CTI will expand the event in the spring semester, with tables in additional locations.

Dave Winterstein is a communication assistant for the Center for Teaching Innovation.

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Abby Butler