Love of teaching comes from love of learning
by Myra Saturen, photos by Randy Monceaux,
Students of Dr. Javier Ávila, professor of English at Northampton Community College (NCC), barely can fit all their superlatives into descriptions of him: "awesome, relatable, very inspiring, captivating." "He cares about us." "He turned my idea of education around." "He deserves this award."
Qualities that make Ávila one of the most beloved and esteemed professors on campus received national recognition in November when he was named Pennsylvania Professor of the Year 2015 by the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The award program, which began in 1981, selects outstanding educators from each state from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. There are 175 colleges in Pennsylvania.
Faculty, staff, students, board members, friends, and family filled Lipkin Auditorium at a January 21 reception and celebration in his honor.
Ávila joined the NCC faculty in 2006 and teaches classes in English, creative writing, poetry writing, contemporary literature, and modern poetry. In addition to teaching, Ávila has written books of poetry, essays and psychological thrillers one of which, Miente, was made into a movie. He has received numerous awards including the Outstanding Latino Cultural Arts, Literary Arts and Publications Award given by the American Association of Hispanics in Higher Education. The thoroughly bilingual writer, born and raised in Puerto Rico, published his dual-language anthology, Vapor: Selected Poems, (Poesía selecta/Selected Poems) in 2014.
At the presentation, NCC President Mark Erickson referred to a Facebook page created by Ávila's past and current students: "Javier Ávila: the Man, the Myth, the Legend." Ávila enthusiasts, "Ávilites" as they call themselves, take as many of his courses they can. "Javier has three passions:" Erickson said. "Teaching, writing and his family."
Professor of English James Von Schilling noted that he fully realized Ávila's extraordinary abilities when he listened to him read his poetry to students. "The students were transfixed," he said. He expressed appreciation for Ávila's inclusiveness as a professor who connects to all his students, whether they sit at the front of the classroom or at the back. As a fellow Hispanic, Von Schilling said, he sees in Ávila the passion, intensity and humor he finds in his other Hispanic colleagues.
Former student Amanda Milhous recalled taking Ávila's English II class simply because it was required. She came away having learned not only about literature, but also about herself. "He had an unwavering belief in me and my abilities to push myself forward in life," she said. (Read the text of Milhous' speech here.)
Ávila expects his students (and himself) to add to "the conversation" with original ideas, creativity embedded in courage. "Courage is not the absence of fear. It is daring to do things despite fear," he said at the celebration. He illustrated courage through the example of his father, a mailman who was afraid of dogs. "My father showed me to dare to try, [perhaps] to fail and to get up again. Perseverance defines people."
His family continues to inspire Ávila. "Teaching is an art form," he said. He credits his wife, Karen Paddock, an adjunct professor of English at NCC, with honing his art by "igniting a flame in my pedagogy." His young son, Oscar, who joined the stage beside his father, has added deep dimensions to Ávila teaching. "I treat my students as I want Oscar's teachers to treat him." Ávila's mother, a veteran high school teacher in Puerto Rico, passed down to him the love of learning. "Learning is enlightening, empowering and beautiful," he said. "Love of teaching comes from love of learning."
Ávila's greatest reward is his students' development. "Their success is my success," he says. His outlook is multicultural, and he enjoys teaching students of all backgrounds and those who are underrepresented at many colleges.
"I accept this award on behalf of all the NCC faculty and the educators who came before us," Ávila concluded. (Read Ávila's speech here.)
This is the third year out of the last seven that an NCC faculty member has earned this designation, the previous NCC Pennsylvania Professors of the Year being Dr. Vasiliki Anastasakos (political science) and Dr. John Leiser (biological science).
View more photos from this event in the photo gallery.