Thursday, July 6, 2017

Ending a 30-year Career

     In mid-June I turned in final grades for spring term, always a moment of complex emotions as I grapple with disappointing work, give every break I can to bring grades up, and marvel again at the progress of some students and the superb work of others. The emotions I faced this time were particularly complex, as it was the last time I'll turn in grades. Or grade papers. Or teach class. My long teaching career at Rogue Community College is over.
     Oh, how I will miss it! I'll miss being on campus and around young people. I'll miss the challenges of teaching – figuring out how to make concepts clear, coming up with creative and interesting assignments, helping students think critically, analyze judiciously, and pay attention both to the world around them and to the words they use. I'll miss seeing the amazing improvement as students apply themselves to my class. I'll even miss that frequent and gratifying comment, "This was the hardest class I've ever taken. But I learned so much!"
     I am not voluntarily retiring, though the new minimum enrollment of 17 would be hard for me to meet. Students don't flock to sign up for my classes, since I have a reputation for being tough. As a teacher, I am like the recipe for an orange and garlic salad I read about years ago: "Not everyone who tried it liked it, but those who liked it loved it." I received many complaints, but other students thought I was the best teacher they ever had. They said things like, "This was the first real college class I've taken at this college" and "You are the first writing teacher who has ever taught me anything. They usually just give me an A, and that's the end of it" and"Every time I write anything now, I think about what you taught me."
     But my supervisor, new this year to the position (though she has been teaching at RCC for as long as I have), apparently dislikes me intensely and does not think I'm a good teacher. (She is very good with the students in the bottom half of the class, helping them succeed. I am very good with the top students, who, I think, are just as often neglected.) I received an email from her mid-term this spring telling me that, because she is having to cut classes with enrollment under 17, I need not return "for fall [term] and beyond," adding, "You are a gifted writer and thinker, and I know you will have other opportunities opened to you."
     The omissions were glaring. Not a gifted teacher? Not a word of thanks for teaching at RCC for more than thirty years? Not the slightest acknowledgement of what I have done for so many students? Incensed, I wrote back something along those lines, giving her a chance to rectify her oversight, mentioning some of the students who have expressed admiration and gratitude. She replied only, "Isn't it nice to have good memories?"
     It has taken me all these two months to let go of the insult. My former supervisor, who is still at RCC, helped by stepping into the gap, when I told him of my dismissal, with words of appreciation and praise, recognizing that my hallmark has always been academic rigor. My secretary gave me a gift and a card, saying she knew that leaving was bitter-sweet for me. (Yes, I thought. "You're the sweet. Midge is the bitter.) Cleaning out my office plummeted me into nostalgia. I threw out the years' accumulation of class assignments, knowing I'll never teach those courses again. I found a thick folder of thank-you notes from students over the years. I read a few. They all said the same thing: "You are a great teacher. I learned so much in your class." I remembered the former students who had come to my seventieth birthday party and given toasts with stories about my teaching.
     Although I had the satisfaction of seeing Midge skulk out of sight whenever she saw me on campus after her notice of dismissal, I did run into her once, as she was going out of the English office and I was going in. Disappointingly, I didn't say nearly half the things I had thought I would say. She apologized for "doing it badly," but that was all. Even given this second opportunity, she still couldn't say anything nice.
     Immediately after that encounter, I saw a former student on campus. She ran towards me. "Let me give you a hug!" she cried. "You did so much for me. I loved your class. I recommend you to everybody. 'Take Coogle,' I say. 'You'll learn so much.' Let's get together for coffee this summer. If you ever need your ego stroked, come to me."
     Such moments were always my best reward. Midge can think what she wants about my teaching. It is not the humiliation from her with which I end my teaching career but the humility I feel before my students' gratitude, admiration, and recognition and the difference I know I have made in so many lives. Besides, my former supervisor, who is the one who schedules literature classes, said that when enrollment at RCC picks up again, he wants to offer ENG 204 – Medieval and Renaissance English – and when he does, he wants me to teach it.

1 comment:

  1. Teachers who can teach everybody are as rare as saints, maybe even more rare. Hundreds of former students who gave you no thanks or disliked your class probably left with treasure of which they spend unconsciously. And for some that may just be the unpleasant knowledge that they are lazy or just poor writers.

    The unfortunate truth about community colleges is that their students don't really take what should be a post high school level course. And they often do not hire teachers of college faculty caliber. You are that caliber and more.

    I'm confident that with your juice and joy life will be busy and you will never be bored.