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Faculty Spotlight: Kevin Sukanek

Distinguished lecturer Kevin Sukanek has made many positive impacts during his time at UT, through his teaching practice, teaching philosophy, and mentorship of undergraduates and graduate students, alike. After graduating with an undergraduate degree in secondary math education from Auburn University, Sukanek continued his education at the University of Mississippi, obtaining his master’s in mathematics. Known for his “inclusivity and kindness in and out of the classroom”, Sukanek takes his kindness a step further, helping his graduate teaching assistants with establishing their own teaching statements, and consistently being a resource for students to rely on. It was no surprise Sukanek was nominated for February’s Faculty Member Spotlight.

For 6 years, Sukanek found himself immersed in new personal experiences, as he worked with the Vol Institute for Math Success mentoring incoming freshman and acclimating them into college level math. A truly eye-opening experience, VIMS brought into light the cultural differences between Sukanek and the students, many of whom were part of under-represented groups. This direct insight into the student’s experiences and backgrounds, led Sukanek to begin shifting his course material to focus on “how to be a successful student” rather than just “how to learn math”. Sukanek also believes in thoroughly inspiring confidence and a sense of empowerment within his students. “My goals are for students to learn the material by creating a memorable classroom, by getting students interested in some aspect of the course, and by emphasizing their ability to learn,” he says.

How does he engage his students in such a positive manner?

“I feel that the use of humor and how I handle myself in the class can be constructive. My class is not a comedy show, but I will often use funny phrasing, like “hittin’ it over the head with this rule” when applying a derivative rule, to catch their attention and make a somewhat mundane task more fun. I have so much fun teaching math, and I hope (my passion for math) is infectious. I also have daily conversations with each of my students before class. This is an essential component to who I am as a teacher. These daily conversations are especially important for underrepresented groups in the classroom. It does not matter how bad of a day I am having; it is important (for me) to have a friendly smile on my face. Having all students feel welcome and included in my class is a necessity. Having good rapport with students is part of the enjoyment factor for students which makes the course experience more memorable,” says Sukanek.

Taking on Graduate Student Mentees is another one of Sukanek’s passions.

“Since I have officially been mentoring for calculus 1, I have worked with between 6 and 14 graduate students each semester while they teach their own section of calculus 1. Most graduate students will be in the calculus 1 mentoring program for both Fall and Spring semesters. Each semester I have co-mentored with Dr. Joan Lind or/and Dr. Marie Jameson. Some aspects (of the course) like the common final and the syllabus are standard across all mentored sections, but many aspects of the course, like lesson plans, quizzes, and midterms must be decided by the mentee,” Sukanek says.

The mentorship typically lasts for at least two semesters, giving the mentees time to gain valuable insight from Sukanek.

“At the end of the mentorship experience, mentees will be more comfortable with how to create materials and teach a course on their own. I follow up each of my class observations with a thirty-minute individual meeting with the mentee where I engage them with questions delving into why they made the choices that they did in the class. We do a grading exercise in our weekly meetings where we have a mock grading assignment, and then we discuss how many points mentees awarded of each problem, and why they graded it as such. I emphasize the importance of reflecting on one’s teaching. Exams they write must be checked by me, where I give feedback either via email or by a meeting. All of these activities ask the mentees about the choices they made; some they might not have realized they made. Activities and discussions that have teachers analyze their philosophy and choices will better prepare teachers for a new course more so than giving them materials and convincing them why it is the “right” way to teach. As I say in my first meeting with mentoring and many times afterwards, I definitely believe there are many right ways to teach,” says Sukanek.

Nowadays, Sukanek continues to make waves in the math world, as he currently has his eye on the development of a new math course, Math 131/132, a 2-semester back-to-back calculus 1 course. Calculus 1 typically consists of a “you should know this by now, we cannot wait” mentality, whereas this new course development will allow students to learn pre-calculus and calculus 1 hand in hand. Sukanek plans to continue developing the course with the aim to begin a mentoring program for graduate students where they will eventually take on teaching the new course themselves.