Friday, July 01, 2011

Goodbye, Mr. Chips

The other day I was suddenly seized with the urge to clean out my office--not the one in our home, but the one at the community college where I had taught for the last several years. I have not taught a course for three semesters, and I have no thoughts of asking for a course. With my husband retired, my not having a course frees us up to travel. So perhaps my teaching days have drawn to a close.

But, the office that I shared with two full time faculty and one other adjunct still held some of my personal items as well as student information and text books.

I loaded books into boxes, and then went through several file drawers where I had accumulated worksheets, quizzes, exams, and even student papers. With abandon, I tossed the papers into recycle bins. I wondered what to do with some of the textbooks--composition books which I had no use for if I weren't teaching.

As if by design, a man appeared at the door. He was one of those textbook buyers who circulate at the end of each semester, looking for used textbooks for which they pay money. Well--sure, go right ahead, look through my books. And he did, and found a fair number for which he offered me $17 total. Done and done. The first time such a buyer appeared at my door, I agonized over what to do. Many of the books that I had collected had been sent unsolicited as tryout texts. So, I was in a quandary. When I asked a colleague, she was frankly puzzled at my ethical pause.

The task of cleaning out the office was a necessity, but it also set me to musing--and thus the real inspiration for this post. I have loved teaching. Nothing I have done in my varied work career has been so rewarding as teaching. And I am grateful to all the links along the way that led me into teaching.

Fresh out of college, with my degree in English literature in hand, I had no clue what I might do. So, off to grad school for me. I realized that I had been privileged to have excellent professors at my alma mater, so I wrote a note of thanks to one of my favorite profs. He promptly wrote back and asked--did I want to return to my alma mater, after my master's degree program was concluded? It was for a one-year fill in for someone on sabbatical. Did I?

Well, I surely did. So, after one year away for grad school, I returned as a very young newly minted instructor in English. I was all of two or three years older than my students. I had no trouble asserting my classroom authority with students, but some of my former professors, now colleagues, didn't exactly help me. Some students told me that one prof was reminding students that they had to read their assignments if they wanted to discuss intelligently the issues. Only one person that he knew could discuss intelligently without having read the assignment--that was me.

So, I asked my former prof, now colleague--please, don't tell students such stories about me! (I think I might have been secretly pleased at being identified as discussing intelligently.) That was then--now I realize that I no doubt short-changed myself but not reading thoroughly the assignments.

After eight years of teaching, I moved on to other work. Make that three other jobs. The last full time job came to an abrupt end when the company I was with merged with another, and I was "made redundant" (that wonderful British term). Facing the prospect of sudden and unplanned retirement, I wondered what to do. Well, there was teaching. So I applied to our local community college for adjunct status teaching English composition. Thus I returned to teaching to conclude my working career.

As with anyone involved in teaching, I have my cache of student stories. There was one student who was furious at me for "giving" him an F. I calmly informed him that he had earned that F. There was another student who gleefully told me, when I returned a paper to her on which she had earned a B, that she only began writing the paper the night before it was due. My comment to her--imagine if you had done more preparation; you might have gotten an A.

Encountering students after a 20 plus year absence from teaching had a completely different dynamic. Add to the time factor the difference between students attending a four-year residential college and students attending a two year non-residential community college. Students at community colleges frequently carry full class loads and work full-time. That leaves little time for engaging enthusiastically in the academic riches of college education.

At the community college some students' stories nearly broke my heart. I would always give students an initial assignment in class--write a diagnostic essay in response to a prompt. That way, I could see how they wrote and have a base-line sample of their writing skills. Sometimes I used the prompt--what was a problem you had, and a way that you solved it. I had quite a few young women who wrote about getting pregnant while in high school, and their decision to keep and raise the baby as a single mom.

In one class, I had a young woman named Brooke. She sat in the back, and never talked. I could tell she was friends with one of the young men. One day, she missed class. I had a fairly strict attendance policy, so I noted the absence. Then she missed again, and again. I finally asked the young man--and he said he thought she was dropping out. It turns out that she had quarreled with her mother, who turned her out. Brooke, at age 18, was living in her car. She never did return to class, and I often wondered what happened to her.

So, as I cleaned out drawers and files, packed up books and personal items, I thought. I thought back on a career in teaching, and again silently thanked the professor who tossed me a one-year teaching position. Of course, it lasted more than one year. The professor on sabbatical who I replaced never returned.


Anvilcloud said...

A thoroughly enjoyable post.Yiz right farely gud fer un englis prawph.

NCmountainwoman said...

Interesting reflections as you close this part of your life.

JeanMac said...

What a wonderful career you had. I agree with you, enjoy retirement with your hubby.Brooke, bless her heart.

Climenheise said...

I remember that new teacher. I took all of the maths courses I could to avoid her! Only when I started failing maths did I admit defeat and take her courses. Never lower than a B-; never higher than a B+. I compensated for other difficulties by being able to guess where her thinking was going more quickly than others -- blood will tell.

I don't know how long I'll keep teaching. The little bit of administrative work that I'm doing convinces me that I not only do teaching better than administration, but I enjoy it a whole lot more.

(Was that teacher on sabbatical a former Rhodes Scholar?)

KGMom said...

@Daryl--the teacher who persuaded me to fill in was the Rhodes Scholar. The sabbatical prof was Dan Hoover. Remember him?

Ginnie said...

I'll bet you could write a blog entry about many of your students. I am always in awe of teachers and especially your patience !
Have fun in the new era of your life...I wish I could afford to travel more.

troutbirder said...

Very enjoyable. It stirred up some reflections on my own teaching days. Mostly happy ones...

Climenheise said...

No I don't remember Dan. Robert -- yes. I should go out to Saskatoon and look him up.

Tossing Pebbles in the Stream said...

It must be nice to know you are retiring. I had a government employment counsellor declare "You are 60, you are unemployable! Have you thought to apply for a disability? This is a country where 65 is not a legal age to retire. I ended up taking an early pension an nursed by feelings of rejection and uworthiness.

You will keep teaching us by posting on your blog, I hope: book reviews, travel essays, reflections on life.