A miracle, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs.
A miracle is also what Auburn University biology professor Matt Kearley considers each of his approximately 450 students.
At the beginning of each semester, Kearley asks his students to come up with a word to describe themselves. After letting them think for a moment, he tells them how he would describe them. This is when he takes a marker and writes in large letters across a markerboard, “MIRACLE.”
“From a biological standpoint, if you look at the chances that one cell from your dad and the oocyte from your mom are going to meet, it is mind-boggling how small a chance that is. We’re talking one in quadrillions,” Kearley said. “For that one thing to happen, it is so miraculous that it will take your breath away. It’s easy to get down when you think about what you don’t have or this is what someone else has, but if you think about the chances of you ever existing – the chances are so skewed against that – it is miraculous that anybody’s here.”
After 22 years of teaching at the university, Kearley has learned that teaching goes beyond lectures and labs. Keeping a student’s attention throughout a semester is not done through unengaging presentations and piles of homework to complete. It is done by caring for students both inside and outside of the classroom.
“It’s not just about the material. It’s about caring about your students as individuals,” Kearley said. “If you can stay invested in your students and their learning and [ensuring] they’re getting something valuable out of the class, try to make that apparent to them and try to be consistent with that.”
He said that after each class, he insists that any student who does not understand a topic or needs help going into a test come to him and tells them, “Let’s get this figured out.”
In fact, Kearley said he would do anything within reason to help a student overcome an obstacle to their learning or make sense of a topic they do not completely understand.
His assistance to and investment in his students goes beyond the halls in which he teaches. Before each test, he takes time from his own schedule to set up review sessions for any who can and want to attend. He is also constantly tending to emails with questions or concerns students have about his course, and sometimes, he even comes to campus on Sundays for review sessions for those who need help going into a test week.
“I try to make myself available and show the students that they’re important to me and that I’m putting a lot of priority on their ability to be successful in class and to have all the resources they need,” Kearley said.
Kearley’s support goes beyond coursework though. Each semester, he makes a point to learn the names of all his students. Keep in mind, Kearley typically has over 400 students each semester, so remembering the names of each student is a daunting task.
Nevertheless, he does it, and it means something to people who are not even in his classes.
“I think the connection [between Kearley and his students] is the mutual benefit that the students get and that [Kearley] gets out of teaching. The excitement he gets out of it is transmitted to the students, so the students are excited about being there, and everything together means that everyone is happy to be there,” said Chair of the Department of Biological Sciences Paul Cobine “But especially his personal touch – learning the names of so many students in so many classes every year – is the main connection here.”
Cobine is not the only one who has taken note of Kearley’s passion for his students. Biological sciences master’s student and biology lab graduate teaching assistant Savannah Valentine has worked with Kearley in his labs for around a year and has seen and heard the impact he leaves on students.
“[Kearley] is very approachable because he’s kind and he’s nice and he’s willing to listen, and he also takes interest [in his students],” Valentine said. “He is just awesome. I feel like he genuinely cares about his GTAs, his students, all of the students in the lab – even if they’re not in his lectures – he cares about each individual one of them .”
Valentine told a story about when a GTA was unable to be in the lab, so Kearley took their place for the day. She watched as he went around the room and asked the students not only about the work in front of them, but also about their pets or about other tests that they had been worried about.
Kearley’s care reaches far beyond the boundaries of Auburn University, and it not only impacts the students, but even the chair of his department.
“I’ve been here for 15 years, and when I came, Matt Kearley was already here teaching in general biology, so I’ve known him for that whole time both in a role of admiring the response that he gets from his class and the respect that he’s earned in his class,” Cobine said. “Now, I’m his supervisor. I review everyone, and by reviewing everyone, you can see his elevated level of success.”
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Cobine said Kearley was always willing to work for the success of the department but never at the expense of the students. He said Kearley cared about the “product” that the department was putting out and how it was dealt to its consumers – his students.
“In terms of administration, he’s the perfect employee for us,” Cobine said. “He almost does too much with his time, and it’s all about furthering the student experience.”
Kearley’s dedication to his department and students comes from a love of both of those things. He said his profession suited him, and that is why he continues teaching with such drive today.
“You’ve just got to constantly adapt and stay dynamic and adjust to what is going to allow the students to learn the most and get the most out of your class,” Kearley said.
Over Kearley’s two decades at Auburn University, his love for his students has been noted by many. In 2011 and 2022, Kearley was selected by students to deliver the Final Lecture – an SGA initiative that allows students to give an award to a deserving instructor. Kearley was also honored with the College of Sciences and Mathematics’ Dean’s Award for Outstanding Faculty Teacher in 2019 and The Auburn Plainsman’s Plainsman’s Choice award for Best Professor in 2022 and 2023.
The joy with which he teaches translates into the lives of his students, his GTAs and even his supervisors. The impact that Kearley has left on Auburn University’s Department of Biological Sciences is far-reaching and profound – some might even say it is miraculous.
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Tucker Massey, junior in journalism, is the content editor for The Auburn Plainsman.
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