Faculty News

Gerald Unks receives a Tanner Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, his eighth University-wide teaching award

Gerald Unks, professor of social foundations of education, has been selected to receive one of the University’s five Tanner Awards for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching for 2009. The awards are presented annually at UNC-Chapel Hill to recognize inspirational teaching of undergraduate students.

Although faculty are eligible to receive certain teaching awards only once every five years, the 2009 Tanner Award is the eighth University-wide teaching award Unks has received since coming to the School of Education in 1967. This record makes Unks one of the top 10 recipients of University-wide teaching awards since 1955.

In addition, he received the School of Education’s J. Minor Gwynn Teaching Award in 1994. He is a member of Carolina’s Academy of Distinguished Teaching Scholars and has served on its board of directors. Last spring, he was invited by the University’s senior class to deliver the Last Lecture to the Class of 2008 at the Senior Send-Off in late April.    

During his career at Carolina, Unks has taught nearly 25,000 students, mostly undergraduates. His first course had nine students; the following semester, the enrollment increased by 400 percent. Currently he teaches 300 students every semester in his Education 41 course, “The School in American Society.” This elective course was developed primarily for non-education majors and is offered with the assumption that many students who take it will later become parents and perhaps policymakers in their communities. He complements the course with an optional service-learning component for students, providing opportunities for them to serve as tutors in area schools.

His students frequently comment that Unks is “the best teacher I’ve had at Carolina” or “the best teacher I have ever had.”

Unks also is the longtime director of the School of Education’s Undergraduate Honors Program, in which outstanding education majors design and conduct research and write about their findings in the form of a senior honors thesis, earning the distinction of graduating With Honors or With Highest Honors from Carolina.

In addition to his teaching and administration, Unks has a research agenda that has focused on overarching issues facing society as well as issues facing schools. For 17 years, he edited The High School Journal, an international scholarly journal dedicated to research and practice in secondary school settings.

In 2007, he wrote, produced and directed a documentary film titled “The Town Before Brown: Segregation in Chapel Hill, North Carolina Prior to 1954.” Co-produced and filmed by doctoral student Cary Gillenwater, the documentary consists of on-site field interviews with African American and white citizens who lived in Chapel Hill immediately prior to the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas.

The film was selected for statewide viewing on North Carolina public television in 2008 in a series featuring outstanding documentary films. It also has been accepted for presentation at the 2009 annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association. It will be the centerpiece of a research session to be presented by Unks, titled “Documenting Racial Segregation: A Qualitative Exploration in Critical Race Theory.” 

Unks’ service includes the founding in the early 1970s of the UNC-Chapel Hill London Program, which he continues to direct. Each summer, he leads a group of 65 students from varying disciplines to explore a four-week, living-learning syllabus in London. He also has led student groups to the Soviet Union and the Peoples Republic of China.

Unks was honored by his alma mater, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in 1998 when the College of Education recognized his “outstanding contributions to the field of education.”

The Tanner Awards were established at UNC-Chapel Hill in 1952 through a bequest by Tanner family, creating an endowment fund in memory of their parents, Lola Spencer and Simpson Bobo Tanner. The lengthy selection process involves letters of nomination from colleagues and students, interviews with department heads, reviews of student evaluations and telephone interviews of randomly selected students. A committee comprised of previous teaching award recipients selects finalists and makes recommendations to the Chancellor.

The Tanner Awards, along with other 2009 University teaching awards, were announced during the halftime of the men’s basketball game on Feb. 18 and will be officially presented at a banquet this spring. The awards are administered through the office of Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Bernadette Gray-Little.