What others have to say about Gerry Unks

Photo of Gerry Unks

Gerry Unks

Honoring Unks,
helping students

The School of Education has established the Gerald Unks Graduate Student Development Fund to honor Unks’s work and to assist graduate students. The fund will provide support for graduate students to help them travel to conduct research or to attend scholarly meetings.

To make a gift to the fund, go here.

More about Gerry Unks

Bill Ware
Bill Ware is a professor of educational psychology at the School of Education.

Gerry Unks. Now there is a name that evokes many, many fond memories of Peabody Hall. When I came to the School in the fall of 1978, I had the good fortune to have my office in 201F Peabody, the office next to Gerry’s. Always the quintessential gentleman, he immediately made me feel welcome, and through all these years, he continued to be a positive force in Peabody Hall. For many years, both he and I taught in 104; both of us lamented the renovation of the building and the removal of the “little stage” in the front of the room.

Gerry is one of the rarest of people that realize the complexity of teaching. Teaching is not simply the transmittal of information; it also involves in a sense a certain degree of “acting.” One can be ever so more successful in teaching if one can develop a relationship with the “audience” and employ both a sense of humor and a sense of timing in the delivery of the content. I shall always remember Gerry’s many contributions to the teaching mission of the School.

But Gerry is no one-trick pony! He also devoted much energy over the years to developing a sense of community in Peabody Hall. It seems like forever that he led the Sunshine Committee, an “ad hoc” group that organized the annual holiday party for staff and faculty; many times he hosted it in his own home. Gerry was always making impassioned pleas to the faculty and staff to support not only the Sunshine Committee, but also University Blood Drives and the annual State Employees Combined Campaign to support the less fortunate citizens of North Carolina and beyond.

Gerry will be sorely missed, but never forgotten by those who were lucky enough to know him!


Dixie Spiegel
Dixie Spiegel retired in 2005 from the School of Education as a professor of literacy.

It’s hard to think of the School of Education without Gerry Unks: Gerry the iconoclast, social critic, make-you-think professor, actor and entertainer, gracious host at innumerable holiday parties, server at the homeless shelter. Gerry’s incredibly popular undergraduate course on American Education introduced thousands (truly, thousands) of future business people, politicians, parents, social workers, and bankers and …. to the complexities of education in our country, demolishing their preconceived notions of what schools are like, what forces impact schools, and what makes schools effective. Gerry has earned the highest praise for any professor: He made a difference.


Don Stedman
Don Stedman was dean of the School of Education from 1990 to 1996.

Every good faculty has a solid core of men and women whose sole interest is their students, their area of special interest and knowledge, and the welfare of their University. They have little interest in padding their resumes, chasing grants, keynoting conferences or the politics of academe.

Gerry Unks is the perfect example of the dedicated professor, sought out by thoughtful students, and secretly envied by the rest of the faculty. He is a dean’s delight.

Throughout his carreer at Carolina, Gerry Unks has been teaching, teaching, teaching – the heart of what we should all be doing. He is a full professor in every sense of the phrase. He will be missed but remembered for all that he has done to make our School the quality organization it is today.


Madeleine Grumet
Madeleine Grumet served as dean of the School of Education from 1998 to 2003. She remains on the School’s faculty as a professor of education.

When I was dean of this school, whenever and wherever I went across this state, I would be stopped by the former students of Gerry Unks, eager to know if he was still teaching here, eager to share their memories of his teaching and of the classes they took with him and remembered as their favorites.  From what I had observed of Gerry’s teaching, I was not surprised by their affection. I would see Gerry before he would enter 104 for his evening class, preparing to address over a hundred students, always meticulously groomed in his jacket and tie, preparing the tea tray that he would bring with him. These signs of formality were not empty gestures. They signaled the students that he took his sessions with them seriously. And his preparation for these meetings was intense, shaping conversations with them that were provocative, compelling, and for many, revelatory. They were performances in the very best sense, where form was employed to project the depth of his commitment to education’s power to enhance the lives of all students.

And Gerald Unks sustained this commitment throughout the momentous changes in educational practices and missions during his teaching forty-four year career here at the School of Education. The integration of our schools, student and national demonstrations against the Vietnam War, counter culture support for students’ rights and humanistic curriculum, development of technologies, establishment of accountability and high stakes testing procedures, recognition of the rights of underrepresented groups – all provide an index to decades of struggle. Buffeted by these educational winds, many lose their balance, intimidated or anxious to conform to the latest funded agenda. But not Gerry Unks. His work here sustained and augmented his commitments to fairness, to the continuous defense and celebration of individuality, to the responsibility of citizens to act in the interest  of each other and a shared society, and to the power of the arts to enrich everyone’s daily experience.

His work also took form in his long editorship of the High School Journal, in the summer abroad programs that he ran, taking UNC students to London to attend and study theatre, and in the documentaries that he has made detailing the history of school integration in Chapel Hill. And it takes form in the model of principled practice that he has provided and continues to inspire in all of us who have shared the privilege of his friendship.


Matthew Green
Matthew Green (M.A.Ed. ’10) is a doctoral student in the School of Education and has worked as a teaching assistant to Gerry Unks. He taught a section of “Education in American Society” this semester in Unks’s place.

I would say that the one thing that makes Gerry is so effective is that he is a storyteller. His class isn't just about information and getting it into students’ heads. Through stories, he takes students to the places where they are learning about.

He has a story for every topic, every part of the history of education in the U.S., and delivers it to students in an entertaining and informative way.

He also is responsive to what students want to know. Class is a free-flowing discussion between him and students. There is a genuine dialogue which engages students and allows them to explore how education and schools function in the U.S.

The biggest thing that Gerry does is that he challenges students to question their own experiences in school and how they have been educated. His ultimate goal is to leave students with more thought-provoking questions than answers about schools and education.


John Westefeld
John Westefeld (Ph.D. ’78), who served as a teaching assistant to Gerry Unks, is a professor at the University of Iowa College of Education.

I was a T.A. for Gerry Unks for only one year – the 1976-77 academic year. The course was Education 41. But in just that one year, Gerry taught me as much about teaching as anyone I ever worked with. To this day, I utilize aspects of what Gerry taught me in my own teaching at the University of Iowa.

When I think about why Gerry was a favorite teacher of so many, numerous things come to mind. His humor, of course, is what many people would first mention, I think – and I do believe this was definitely an important factor. But beyond that, in my view the sense of emotion he brought to the classroom, and his ability to infuse contemporary relevance into his teaching stand out for me as two very important reasons that go a long way toward explaining his popularity.

He became emotional during class on occasion – never inappropriately – but in a way that showed he was a deeply feeling person. I think this resonated with many students. He also used countless examples to illustrate many of the concepts we discussed in class. These examples were from current/past world events, as well as life in Chapel Hill, and from his own life experiences. He was also willing to self -disclose in the classroom – again not inappropriately – but in a way that humanized him, and made him able to connect with his students. And his public speaking skills were outstanding – he was a master at holding the attention of an audience.

It is incredible to me to think about the number of students Gerry has taught – and the current age range of those students. His impact, over these many years – has been massive. And of course his impact will live on for many, many years, as these former students impact the world around them.

The quote I most remember from Gerry was one he always used in Education 41, wherein he defined a great teacher. Here is how Gerry used to talk about this in class: “The finest definition of a teacher I have ever heard didn’t come from an Education textbook. It came from an article that I  think appeared first in Life magazine, and they were talking about President John Kennedy being like a great teacher – they said in that article that ‘John Kennedy is like a great teacher – he instructs in realities – and suggests dreams’ – and I have never heard a finer definition of a teacher.”

Like Gerry, I too have never heard a finer definition of a teacher – and I use that quote all the time. For me, Gerry Unks was and is a great teacher – he truly does “instruct in realities … and suggest dreams.”


Jane Van Galen
Jane Van Galen (Ph.D.’ 86) was a teaching assistant for Gerry Unks in the mid-1980s. She’s now a professor of education at the University of Washington Bothell.

How did Gerry Unks inspire you?
I'll never forget the first time that I watched him teach his Foundations of Education course. He had a box in the front of the classroom in which students could place questions about the course, the readings, or something that had happened in a prior class session. And he structured his classes largely around those questions.  After working with him for a while, I came to deeply appreciate how much he wove the lectures, stories, and other content that he'd always intended to "teach" into those answers. He was masterful in weaving what he wanted students to understand with their particular questions.

And, he was outright hilarious. He was one of the mentors who taught me to take the questions of justice in American schooling very seriously while not conveying to the students that you take yourself too seriously.

What is it about Gerry Unks that has made him a favorite teacher for so many of his students?
He's brilliant. He's very funny. He's masterful in front of a lecture hall – working the whole front of the room, engaging everyone from the front to the back row. I've never seen another faculty member elicit so much participation and discussion in large classes, in part because the material as he presented it was so provocative, and in part because he was so good in answering their questions but then also turning questions back on the students so that they'd keep thinking ever more deeply about the issues.

What did Gerry Unks teach you how to connect with students?
He taught me the importance of telling stories to connect abstract material to the lives of teachers and teachers-to-be. There was no one better at telling superbly crafted, spellbinding stories to enthralled students.  He taught me about showing your own humanity in the classroom.

In his famous end-of-class “Klaxon” story with which he'd always end Education 41 (and students from prior classes would come in to hear it, filling the back of the classroom), he also taught me to never shy away from the teaching about the huge responsibilities that we have when we choose to teach.