Mike Perko

UNC Board of Governors 2018 Teaching Award Winner Michael Perko

UNC Greensboro

It pretty much began here:

In the fifth grade, Sister Agnes Mary asked three of us to go up to the blackboard and answer a math problem using long division. Jamie Loehr (now my father’s physician, in retrospect I am glad he did well on this problem) and Eileen John (currently a Philosophy professor in England) were able to solve theirs in a short period of time; I on the other hand got stuck on where to put the decimal point and can remember standing with my back to my classmates, chalk pressed against the board, frozen in place. And I stood there, through the rest of math class; through the next period, which was social studies, and through the next period, English, till I was finally released from blackboard purgatory to eat lunch. I will NEVER forget the feeling I had as I stood there, three inches from the board, for over an hour. In fact now, over 40 years later, it is easy to recall the pit in my stomach and my dry mouth, the sweat pouring down my back, and the feeling that I could solve this if I was just given some encouragement. Two things happened that day: I was ruined for life for math, which was too bad because I liked it, and, I realized the difference between flat out not knowing the answer, and not knowing the answer but desperately wanting to learn with the right guidance. I knew I was not stupid, I just needed someone to show me they had faith (no irony intended) that I could do it. I hope that the following sections highlight and underscore the commitment I made years ago to never again allow any student to feel they are not capable of learning.

Teaching Philosophy

My philosophy of teaching and my methods can be traced directly to my experience with Sister Agnes Mary and the math problem. As I got older, I became a hero for the underdog, learning to subtly and overtly encourage strengths that only needed to be guided. I vowed to repay all the students I could with a moment of encouragement, something I had not had on that day in fifth grade. I simply know that is why I am a teacher. I have searched for a vehicle to express my philosophy and I happened upon the notion that long ago, sailors, having sailed on each of the seven seas, were known to possess all the knowledge in the world. I certainly have not sailed around the world in my teaching, but my philosophy has certainly changed since I first “left shore.” I‘d like to use the Seven “C’s” to illustrate where I am now. The Seven “C’s” as I relate them to my teaching philosophy are:

  1. Courage
  2. Community
  3. Conceptualization
  4. Creativity
  5. Collaboration
  6. Collegiality
  7. Compassion

Courage: I did not have courage as a young teacher. I feared not being the absolute smartest person in the room and never wanted to appear as if I did not know something. This I have come to realize given my subject matter of health, could have serious consequences, and was grossly unfair to my students. In Jane Tompkins “A Life in School: What the Teacher Learned,” the author discovers that she will not be less thought of if she walks into a classroom and looks to her students for guidance, if fact, it is this very act that allows students and teacher to feel more a part of the experience.

Community: I have always believed that each of my classes should be thought of as a community rather than a square room filled with 50 people staring at the backs of each other’s heads. One of my favorite activities to do early on is have students, anonymously write down the following: What is the one thing that will make you truly happy, and what is the one thing, that, just by looking at you, we would never guess that you have done. I then separate the students into two groups, hand out the cards, and ask them to find the person on the card just by looking for them. This as you can imagine takes some time and when they finally connect the “oohs and aahs and no ways” are overwhelming. I do this for the following reasons – it adds depth to the person sitting next to you all semester if you know that they donated a kidney to their brother or saved someone’s life after an auto accident. It also brings out the fact that everyone has lived a life, has dreams, and is not just third row, second seat, HEA 308.

Conceptualization: Ask any of the over 3000 plus students I have had in my career and they will all say that Perko’s first rule of health is that “Knowledge does not equal behavior change.” The teaching of facts in health, while the absolute basis for cognition, is secondary to the teaching of concepts in health. Health is fluid, it is thoughts and behaviors and processes. The health promotion / health education process involves helping individuals, groups, and communities develop the political, institutional, social, and economic structures needed to sustain and encourage health behaviors, not micro-managing each individual with facts that will be forgotten by the weekend. The students who graduate from our program will have seen advocacy in action, will understand about social ecology systems and reciprocal determinism, and will be witness to our ongoing crisis in healthcare, obesity, and diabetes, but they will not know how many calories are in a big Mac I can promise you that.

Creativity: Health is a laughing matter, just ask Norman Cousins, the only non-MD to hold a full professorship while teaching Medical Humanities in the UCLA School of Medicine. Cousins, who recuperated from two life-threatening illnesses with daily doses of belly laughter, believed "that the life force may be the least understood force on earth". I incorporate creativity and humor into my teaching as a matter of curricular choice, not as a matter of edutainment. Health can and does lend itself to creativity and humor; to fail to realize that is a tremendous disservice.

Collaboration: I have lost count of the number of non-health people who I have collaborated with in the classroom. From the make-up artist who demonstrated on a student how the face will age, to the newspaper reporter who talked about political bias in reporting about controversial health topics, to the septuagenarian big band leader whose motto was “I don’t retire, I refire…”, to the author on rhetoric used by faith healers on sick people, the students who have been exposed to seemingly random individuals and who finally make the connection to health and behavior are finally thinking that health is more than just eating right and working out at the Rec center.

Collegiality: In my freshman year I took a sociology class. Dr. Abe Bernstein was the professor and on the first day of class he sauntered in, flung off his fedora and trench coat and said “Colleagues, we have a lot of work to do.” I looked around…who was he talking to? Colleagues? The notion had never struck me before. How could he think of us as colleagues? He did and treated us as such all semester; he made sure we gave our input and figured out complex sociological concepts while facilitating the discussions. The first time it came out of my mouth as a professor it just sounded right and I have been doing so ever since. I have also added the word “scholars.” I believe the university setting is the appropriate place to plant the notion that those seated in front of me can form mature and professional thoughts. Are they really my colleagues? Absolutely. What’s wrong with trying it on to see how it fits?

Compassion: I love to teach. I see the best in my students. No matter how cliché it sounds or how often you hear it said, the feeling you get from having the world that teachers have – the world of thousands of relationships with outstanding students and people, the richness of passing on knowledge, the joy of those students who say, “I want to do what you do”, the celebration of graduating seniors year after year who thank you for helping them. I feel I owe it to all the students who ever stood with their back to the class and wanted just a little help because they really wanted to answer the question on the board. I wake up every day, clap my hands and say, “I hope I get that chance today.”

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