Gerald Unks retiring from School of Education after 45-year career as a favorite teacher

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

Gerald “Gerry” Unks, regularly cited as a favorite professor by many of the thousands of students he taught during a 45-year career at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Education, has retired.

Unks, 76, was a sought-after professor, known for his humorous and engaging lectures in his “Education in American Society” course. It has been calculated that he taught more than 24,000 Carolina students.

Bill McDiarmid, dean of the School of Education, said Unks would be missed.

“Professor Gerry Unks has become synonymous with teaching excellence at the School of Education and on this campus,” McDiarmid said. “Thousands of students who have taken his course have benefited from his knowledge, wit and experience. Not only will he be missed in the School of Education, he’ll be missed across campus.”

Unks joined the Carolina faculty in 1967 after getting his doctorate from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He taught high school social studies in Evanston, Ill., for six years before going to graduate school.

Unks was known among Carolina students for his rollicking classes in Peabody Hall’s Room 104 in which he engaged 140-plus students at a time in conversations about educational issues. He received 13 teaching awards at Carolina, including four times receiving all-University teaching awards – the Tanner Award twice in 2002 and 2009, the Standard Oil Award in 1971, and the Amoco Award in 1977. He was presented by the senior class and the General Alumni Association the Favorite Professor Award in 1990 and 2008. He was also presented three times – in 1999, 2000 and 2011 – the Outstanding Faculty Award by the GAA, the Division of Student Affairs and the student body.

“The absolute happiest highlight of my career was winning my first all-University teaching award,” Unks said, of winning the Standard Oil Award in 1971. “No one from the School of Education had ever received one. I was absolutely in heaven.”

Unks plans to remain in Chapel Hill. He said he is going to continue work on a series of videotaped interviews with retired School of Education faculty members, exploring the history of the School.

A ‘masterful’ teacher
Unks said he began learning how to teach – and how to engage a group of students – during the six summers he spent working as a camp counselor at Camp Wokanda, a Boy Scout camp near where he grew up in Morton, Illinois.

“What prepared me for teaching more than anything was being a camp counselor,” Unks said. “Being told ‘Go out and lead a song,’ and suddenly I’m standing in front of 150 kids leading a song. Or being told, ‘Tell a story,’ or ‘Show this kid how to tie a square knot.’”

Matthew Green, a doctoral student at the School of Education and one of Unks’s teaching assistants last year, said Unks was well-liked by students and effective because he was a storyteller.

“His class isn’t just about information and getting it into students’ heads,” Green said. “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.”

Jane Van Galen, a professor of education at the University of Washington Bothell and who worked for Unks as a teaching assistant during the mid-1980s, described Unks as a brilliant lecturer.

“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,” she said. “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.

“And, he was outright hilarious,” she said. “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.”

Madeleine Grumet, a member of the School of Education faculty who served as dean for five years, said she was often asked about Unks by former students, who then volunteered memories of his classes.

“From what I observed of Gerry’s teaching, I was not surprised by their affection,” she said. “… [H]is 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 students.”

Unks said to engage with students it was important to be genuine. He said he also worked to use some of what he had learned by performing in school plays and with Playmakers Repertory Company.

“Sometimes I have said it’s as simple a thing like walking around the room, not just standing there like a corn stalk in the front of the room,” Unks said. “Be interesting. Be excited! If you aren’t excited about what you’re teaching, for God’s sake why should the students be excited about it?”

Green described the effect of Unks’s teaching: “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.”

‘No one-trick pony’
Unks was a proponent of foreign studies, during his career taking more than 2,000 Carolina students for month-long summer study programs in London. He also took students to China in 1979 and to the Soviet Union in the early 1980s.

Travel is important for helping students learn not only about the world, but also to reveal truths about their own cultures and themselves, Unks said.

“All of us are ethnocentric and narrow-minded to some degree,” he said. “There’s no better way to break down that ethnocentrism and widen those blinders than to encounter another culture.”

Unks also served for 17 years as editor of the High School Journal, one of the oldest peer-reviewed academic journals in education. Unks said helping save the journal at a time when it faced being closed was one of his proudest contributions.

He had also directed the School of Education’s Honors Program since 1992.

“It was a way that I got to work with some of the brightest kids in the School of Education,” Unks said. “I like working with them. They tend to be less narrow-minded, more open-minded about things.”

Unks has written four books and numerous book chapters, journal articles, book reviews and other publications. He has been a regular speaker at professional meetings and for campus and community groups. He helped create the documentary film “The Town Before Brown” that explored segregation in Chapel Hill before the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that ended “separate but equal” schooling.

Bill Ware, professor of educational psychology and a longtime colleague of Unks’s, said Unks was best known for his teaching.

“But Gerry is no one-trick pony,” Ware said. “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 the 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,” Ware said.

Unks said he treasured his time at UNC-Chapel Hill.

“I have had a 45-year love affair with the Carolina undergraduate student body.”