Kathy Cook earns UW teaching award

Kathy Cook earns UW teaching award by Rob Harrill For Kathy Cook, the desire to be a teacher started early.

The doctoral candidate in the University of Washington (UW) Department of Psychology recalls collecting leftover worksheets from her second-grade teacher in Vermillion, and from her mother, who also taught school. Her father, a professor at The University of South Dakota, hung a small blackboard in their basement and obtained a couple of antique desks, complete with ink wells.

The 7-year-old then went out recruiting.

"I rounded up the kids in the neighborhood and started holding class in our basement," Cook said. "My little sister got mad at me because she said it made her first couple years of school boring. She could already read and write by the time she entered kindergarten."

That teaching passion has apparently stayed put, according to Cook's colleagues and students, who describe her as devoted, caring and highly skilled. They say those qualities make her a perfect choice as one of this year's winners of a UW Excellence in Teaching Award.

"In her time here, Kathy has played a more central role in teaching than any other graduate student," said Michael Beecher, professor and chair of the psychology department. "I have the impression that Kathy could teach anything."

Looking over her resume, one might conclude that she has.

A clarinet player, Cook graduated from the University of Louisville in Kentucky with a bachelor's degree in music education in 1988. She took jobs in Iowa, first as music director for an entire school district, then as band director at a junior high school in Ankeny. She directed concert bands, marching bands, jazz bands and prep bands. She organized and managed the logistics of special performances. She taught daily in the classroom. And she gave individual lessons to get her students' abilities up to par. Those experiences were transformative, she said � the work was hard, the hours were long and the students were wonderful.

"I figured it out once," she said, with a laugh. "With the amount of time I was putting in teaching class, going to events, and teaching individual lessons, I was making something like 65 cents an hour!"

Beecher suspects that Cook's previous job experiences � which also included being CEO of a small company � provided a solid foundation for her success in the university environment.

"College students have got to be a piece of cake after middle schoolers!" he said.

Cook said she works hard at her teaching. She wants to make certain that her students get her best effort. The payoff comes when they catch some of her enthusiasm for the materials, when they are motivated to go the extra mile in pursuing their own academic interests.

She recalled one student in an undergraduate abnormal psychology class who decided to do research with her. The initial reason she gave for the request was "that my work sounded very interesting," Cook said.

The two collaborated, and when the student decided she wanted to go to graduate school Cook helped her devise her own study in preparation for that. She tutored the student on the mathematics portion of the GRE (her performance improved by 150 points) and offered advice in writing the essay portions on graduate school application.

The student was accepted by six of the seven schools she applied to and was able to pick her top choice, the University of California in Santa Barbara.

"She now tells me that the real reason she came to me in the first place was because she knew that I would care � that I would care what happened to her and about her experience," Cook said. "That's probably the highest compliment a student can pay me."

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