What makes a good teacher?

It’s a difficult question. I personally hold some of my previous teachers responsible for shaping me into the person I am today, and I’m sure most of you can too—but why?

A good teacher is not necessarily someone who is the most knowledgeable, the best researcher, the most eloquent speaker, or the one who grades the easiest. It’s that special individual who is willing to go the extra mile and who demonstrates an unwavering desire to invigorate the minds and scholarly potential of their students.

In celebration of such individuals, U of T’s first Early Career Teaching Awards were presented to the professors who embody these principles and act as examples of teaching prowess. They acknowledge faculty members who employ exceptional teaching skills and are committed to “student learning, pedagogical engagement, and teaching innovation”. Recipients were awarded $3,000 each and were honoured at an Excellence in Teaching Reception on November 3.

UTM’s own Kyle Smith of the Department of Historical Studies is the proud recipient of one of these awards.

Smith is part of the history of religions division within the department and also teaches in a graduate program at the downtown campus.

Smith loves his job because it allows him to pursue his passions in both research and teaching. There are few careers where someone can honestly say that they have almost complete free rein­—this is one of those careers. Although his Intro to Christianity course is mandatory, Smith says he wouldn’t have it any other way. He loves teaching it.

Now I hate to admit it, but I may have nonchalantly mentioned to Smith that I personally found his life’s passion both boring and uninteresting. His reply took me by surprise. Smith thinks that high school history is taught in terms of names and dates and great—white—men. He made it abundantly clear that he encourages his students to ask questions that aren’t related to cause and effect, but that are about the larger thematic picture. In fact, Smith believes that he received the award partly because his love for the subject matter translates into students engaging with his lectures.

Smith is originally from Kentucky and moved to Canada about four years ago. He conducted his graduate work at Duke University in North Carolina, got a job here at UTM shortly after, and has lived in Toronto ever since. Smith says that he has enjoyed his time in Canada so far and is shocked at how big and safe a city Toronto is. He recalls memories of hearing gunshots from his home in Kentucky, which, believe it or not, was par for the course in a lot of American cities.

He has definitely witnessed firsthand, as the stereotype suggests, how incredibly nice Canadians are. Living in Toronto means that he witnesses culturally and religiously diverse people from all around the world in one place. He could do without the winters, however—something I and a bunch of us Canucks wholeheartedly agree with.

Smith turned to the world of academia with the intention of being able to read and conduct research on whatever he pleased. He loves the teaching aspect of his job but considers it a secondary motive.

He made his way up the ladder of earning his PhD through this research and was fortunate enough to dodge the onslaught of post docs and teaching assignments. He landed the tenured track gig at UTM in May of 2011. Currently, Smith is an assistant professor and intends to apply for tenure in September 2016.

However, he isn’t all business and leaves enough room for recreation in his busy schedule. To keep his mind and body in peak physical condition, he plays in a soccer league, cycles, and runs every day. He also enjoys cooking and loves to read when he’s not conducting research.

Throughout his childhood, the Star Wars character Yoda was a huge influence on Smith. Yoda was wise, lived out in the wasteland on his own, and knew things everyone else didn’t.

Smith’s passion matured into an interest in philosophy and later ancient philosophy. This interest evolved into a passion for early Christianity and early Christian monasticism, which is his current work specialization.

He’s also done plenty of travelling to conduct his research and has lived in Jerusalem for a year, hiking to and studying in monasteries in the Judean Desert. He spent a lot of time working with language while there. He had one long trip in Turkey, in Constantinople, and other regions around there. Unfortunately, most of the research he conducts now has sites in dangerous places like Western Iran and Northern Iraq. He hopes that in time, he can travel to Iran.

Smith hopes that as he progresses further as an educator, he can create a multitude of new broadly thematic courses that pique the interest of UTM students, such as Christmas and its function in certain societies. While it would be fun to teach such courses, it would be difficult too as Smith believes that it would take him out of his comfort zone in research specialization.

Confucius says that a true teacher is one who, through keeping the past alive, is also able to understand the present. I believe this sums up Smith perfectly.

This article has been corrected from the print edition. The photo that originally accompanied the article was not of Professor Smith. A notice will be printed in the November 16, 2015 issue.