I'm in the midst of reading nominations for Penn State's teaching awards, and I've been extremely impressed by the nominees. All sound extremely dedicated to their students' learning, and the letters from students are especially impressive. In addition to content knowledge and ability to create good learning environments in their classes, one thing that's mentioned often is the ability of some faculty members to be open and approachable -- to make students feel like this person is a mentor and source of advice, even if not the student's official adviser.
That makes me think of Bernie Asbell, whose magazine-writing classes I took when I was a junior at Penn State many years ago. He was a journalist and author who had turned to teaching late in his career. In addition to being dedicated to making us all into better writers, Bernie was an approachable human being. When my writing alluded to some thorny issues I was dealing with, he privately talked with me in a very empathic and caring way. (I remember this conversation, on a bench near Old Main, like it was yesterday.) His wise words helped me figure out my dilemma, and I will always be grateful. I never really told him that, though -- he died several years ago -- so I'm pleased to see so many students taking the opportunity to thank outstanding faculty by nominating them for teaching awards.