Dr. Kay Sandberg has a box of Kleenex on her desk. Not for her—for the students who don’t pass her course in organic chemistry.
“The hardest part of my job, the part I hate,” says Sandberg, who has taught chemistry and organic chemistry at NC State since 1998, “is when a student has come to every class, done every assignment, but they’ve failed the final and it’s obvious that they don’t have the knowledge to pass the course. It breaks my heart, but I can’t pass them.”
Sandberg was recently named one of the country’s top 10 “Tough Love” professors by MyEdu, a website that compiled data from 800,000 student ratings at the nation’s 777 largest colleges and universities. To make the list, a professor had to be well-regarded by students, but the class average couldn’t be above a C.
During the spring semester Sandberg taught four sections of organic chemistry to 450 students. Although some earned A’s and B’s, most students received a C or lower. Nevertheless, her student reviews were positive, citing Sandberg’s willingness to help and acknowledging that even if you don’t pass, you’re going to learn.
“This class can be a dream wrecker,” she wryly concedes, “because it’s a prerequisite for medical school, vet school—all of the professional health schools. And organic chemistry is one of those subjects that some students can’t get through, and I sympathize with them.”
Sandberg’s sympathy is born of experience. She entered college with the dream of being a piano major, but at the end of her freshman year was told that she lacked the raw talent and dexterity necessary for success.
“It was something that no matter how much I wanted it, no matter how hard I worked, I just could not do it. In my community, I was the best one there. But when I got here, where the real talent was, I saw I wasn’t even close to the best, and they were honest enough to let me know I couldn’t do it.”
Sandberg eventually turned to math and science, applying her talent for live performance in the classroom. After teaching in Wake County Public Schools for seven years and at a private school for three, she returned to NC State for her Ph.D. Her experience has informed her teaching style.
Sandberg incorporates interactivity in all of her courses, whether traditional large lecture style, or the smaller inquiry-based courses that are modeled on Dr. Robert Beichner’s SCALE-UP approach to instruction. But whatever the style or class size, she holds each student to the same academic standard.
“I’m clear about my expectations up front, and I explain that memorization alone won’t get them through this course. I lay it all out for them the first day—that’s the tough part of the equation. And I teach my heart out every day—that’s the love part. But in the end I have standards I have to uphold; after all, these are the people who may be operating on me someday!”
Back to the Kleenex on the desk: Sandberg admits that sometimes she wants to cry along with her students. “It’s hard, finding out that you can’t do something,” she says, “but I’m proof that it’s not the end of the world.”