GCCC's Davis leaving behind a legacy of leadership




Special to The Telegram

Before joining the Garden City Community College faculty in 1998, Kay Davis had one strict classroom rule: no smiling until Christmas.

Teaching students to balance chemical equations, interpret the periodic table of elements, and calculate atomic mass are not lighthearted matters.

Yet, it wasn't long after her first year on the Garden City campus that the veteran science instructor, who is retiring June 1, started bending her own rigid rule.

"One of my old professors at college told me, 'You can always get nicer, but you can't ever get tougher,' — I'd lived by that rule," Davis, 56, said. "Some days I would go home after school, and my face would hurt from not smiling. But, here, it's different.¬ Every day somebody makes me laugh — that's really the most fun. You can expect to have a laugh and a smile every day."¬ 

In 16 years at GCCC, Davis has taught roughly 2,800 students in chemistry, physical science and geology courses. Countless more profited from her instruction as a high school science teacher, a career that started in Oklahoma, her home state, in 1979, the same year she graduated from Oklahoma Panhandle University, where she received a bachelor's of science in natural science and home economics, with a minor in earth science.

While at the university, she was a member of the women's basketball and track teams and was awarded the outstanding senior graduate for the class of 1979, as well as the outstanding woman athlete the same year.

She taught science and coached girls's basketball and track at various schools before moving to Garden City in 1989, where she taught ninth-grade students at Kenneth Henderson Middle School for one year — freshmen students were housed at the middle school at that time. She joined the Garden City High School staff the following year.

While at the high school, she received the Tandy Technology Award for Outstanding Science and Math instructors and served as the chairperson for North Central Accreditation for GCHS for three years. She also earned a master's in physical science and a master of administration of higher education from Fort Hays University in 1993 and 2005.

She began teaching at GCCC as a science insructor in 1998, and served as Division Director for the Science and Math departments beginning in 2006. In addition to teaching chemistry and geology, she is serving on the Instructional Leadership Team.

In 35 years of teaching, no matter the size or scope of classroom, Davis said she's hopeful her students have not only learned new ideas but were challenged by the concepts they encountered.

"I think that when you challenge students, they step up to the plate and do the work," she said. "I think sometimes we don't challenge them like we should. But when someone challenges you, you say, 'Hey I think I can do that, and I'm going to show 'em that I can.'"

It's those high expectations and confidence in others that colleagues have admired about Davis during her tenure as math and science division director, a position she's held since 2006.

John Schafer, a GCCC biology instructor who taught alongside Davis at GCHS in the 1990s, said her open-minded leadership has benefitted both faculty and students.

"I think everybody — even when she wasn't division director — has a lot of respect for her," Schafer said. "This whole notion of hybrid (education) is something new, and Kay has always been very willing to let the faculty try new ideas. She's progressive, and that's refreshing."

Terry Lee, a fellow GCCC science educator, preceded Davis as department head. He said filling the leadership void she leaves behind will be difficult.

"Kay brings a wealth of knowledge and experience at being in the classroom and dealing with a wide variety of situations," he said. "She's very organized, and she's an individual who delegates well."

In addition to teaching and leading a department, Davis also revived the GCCC Academic Excellence Challenge team in 2000. The student club that competes in fast-paced trivia competitions with other colleges excelled under Davis' guidance, qualified for its first national competition appearance in 2010 and placed in the top four teams in Kansas 11 out of 13 years, winning the state championship two of those years.

Coaching the team for 13 years was incredibly rewarding, Davis said, not only because she got to work with a diverse array of students from across campus but also across curriculums: literature, math, history, geography, philosophy and more.

Former student Joshua Welch, a 2013 GCCC graduate, competed on the academic challenge team during Davis' last year as coach.

The college junior, now at Kansas State University, said his former coach's personality and knowledge "really gave us the edge we needed" to compete at high levels.

"Mrs. Davis always pushed us to do our best, but she still made it fun for us," Welch said. "She expected a lot from her students but was always willing to help them when they did not understand. She really was an excellent example of what being a teacher should be like."

Dr. Bruce Exstrom, an instructional vice president who has worked alongside Davis on the Instructional Leadership Team, echoed similar sentiments. Exstrom said the college will be losing a valuable faculty member who contributed much to the college over the years.

"She is a combination of administrator, faculty, colleague and most importantly, a friend," he said. "Her honest leadership and hard work have made GCCC a good place to learn and a good place to work."¬ 

Davis will join her husband, Jeff Davis, a former GCCC computer applications instructor, in retirement. What's next on her journey, however, isn't certain.

"I am excited about starting a new adventure, though I'm not sure what that will look like yet," Davis said. "But I'll plan on something here in Garden to start with."

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