When students step into Buddy Howell’s classroom, they can expect a warm “Howdy!” and, maybe, a rendition of “Happy Birthday.”

Those are two staples of courses taught by the advanced instructor. Another is Howell’s effort to help students grow as learners — and people.

“I try to be the kind of professor I hope my kids have one day,” said Howell. “I try to be the kind of professor I would want — someone who works to engage, to be interesting, and to who really cares about students.”

Students recently recognized Howell’s commitment by selecting him for a prestigious honor: the 2020 University Sporn Teaching Award for Excellence in Teaching Introductory Subjects. The award, sponsored by the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and the Virginia Tech Academy for Teaching Excellence, represents the highest faculty honor selected and nominated by undergraduates.  

Recipients of the Sporn Award receive automatic induction into the Academy of Teaching Excellence.  

Howell, a faculty member at Virginia Tech since 2009, teaches courses focused on introducing students to the study of communication, rhetoric, and persuasion.

He said he strives to connect with students personally in the classroom and one-on-one outside the classroom in counseling sessions.

“Students don’t care how much we know until they know how much we care,” said Howell. “I could have the IQ of a zip code. But I can only teach effectively if I show the students that I care about them and the lessons I teach.”

Howell’s enthusiastic approach is especially evident in his memorable classroom interactions. When he enters the room, he belts out, “Howdy!” Students echo his greeting in unison. Howell began using the salutation during his time as a student at Texas A&M, where saying “Howdy” is ingrained in the culture.

Howell also begins each class by asking whether any students are celebrating a birthday that day or week. Anyone who answers yes is encouraged to stand as the class turns into a chorus.

“Singing ‘Happy Birthday’ is part of my philosophy of creating a community within the class and making a large group experience more personal,” said Howell.

The advanced instructor said his approach to education is influenced by a quote attributed to the poet William Butler Yeats: “Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.”

Howell encourages students to arrive in class prepared to participate.

“On the first day of class I show my students a picture of a bucket. I tell them, don’t come to the classroom as an empty bucket expecting me to fill your head with information you can use to simply bubble in answers on a test,” said Howell. “The match must make contact with an object before it can light. I tell students, you’ve got to read before you come to class. Come ready to talk, ask questions, share ideas, and apply lessons.”

Howell learned he received the award before spring break. In June, the university recognized him and other faculty members during a ceremony held virtually in response to COVID-19.

Howell said he felt surprised and honored when he received the notice.

“You want to be known as somebody who really loves students and tries to treat them the way you want to be treated,” said Howell. “When they express appreciation for that, words can’t describe it. You feel like you’ve been a part of their lives, encouraging them and helping them learn. It’s an honor and a privilege to have this profession, and to get to teach at Virginia Tech.”

Written by Andrew Adkins