June 1st, 2009

Retirement Reflections: Things I Will and Won’t Miss After 33 Years of Teaching


Editor’s note: Maryellen Weimer, editor of The Teaching Professor penned the following column upon her retirement in 2007. As you read it, we encourage you to think about the things you will and won’t miss when you retire. Share your thoughts in the comment box.

I am just about to retire from Penn State and leave my faculty position teaching undergraduates. I’ll still be working; there’s this newsletter to edit and a world of faculty who still need advice, ideas, and encouragement to do their very best in the classroom. But you don’t end 33 years of college teaching without thinking about those things that will and won’t be missed on campus. Here’s my list.

Things I’ll miss:

  • The nervous anticipation of going to class, rehearsing my lines as I drive to campus, thinking about all that’s possible, believing that I just might be able to make some of it happen.
  • Those days in class when students get it. Sometimes that new understanding shines from their faces, sometimes they make a comment that attests to how well they’ve got it, and sometimes they report the details in a paper. Sometimes they give you credit. Even if they don’t, it’s still an event worthy of witness.
  • Those days in class when I get it. When I see how to connect content to students; efforts to learn to appropriate processes; and students to the insights, ideas, and motivation of other students.
  • Seeing seniors at graduation and remembering how they looked that first day of their first semester in college.
  • Watching students who started out failing or doing poorly learning to succeed.
  • Colleagues whose passion for teaching spreads enough hot coals to light new fires and rekindle others when their embers burn low or die out.
  • Colleagues who use their fine minds, keen intellects, and inquisitive sensibilities to tackle teaching and learning with intellectual robustness.

Things I won’t miss

  • Those bright, capable students who don’t care and won’t make an effort. Those students full of potential who happily do work just barely above the line that marks acceptable.
  • Colleagues who have given up on teaching and are doing time in the classroom—the ones who’ve locked themselves out of meaningful, trusting relationships by using policies and practices that render all encounters with students adversarial.
  • Colleagues who blame students for what they aren’t accomplishing as teachers.
  • End-of-course student evaluations that ask irrelevant questions and give administrators data from which to draw dubious conclusions.
  • Peer reviews where the Lake Wobegon effect devalues any teaching that is truly above average.
  • Grading papers so full of grammatical errors that it’s difficult to see beyond them to the ideas behind them.
  • Students so full of excuses there’s no room left for learning.
  • Students with whom conversations never get past the points—those taken off, missed, totaled, awarded for extra credit, given, earned, offered as bonus, secured surreptitiously, or bought on the black market.
  • Those days in class when I can’t make it happen, when my best efforts don’t make a difference. Those days when passivity, like fog, settles over the classroom, when students yawn and nod off and no amount of enthusiasm cuts through the chill of complacency—those days when only the cold signifies that this place isn’t teaching hell.

If you’re retiring this year, please share some of the things you will and won’t miss by clicking on the Add Comment button.

  • Ryan

    First of all, congratulations and thank you for giving your all for so many years. That said, thank you for a heartwarming list that I can certainly identify with, though I hope I never fall into the negative category of "Colleagues who have given up on teaching and are doing time in the classroom—the ones who’ve locked themselves out of meaningful, trusting relationships by using policies and practices that render all encounters with students adversarial."

    Articles such as yours makes teaching refreshing when all hope is thought to be going down the drain.

  • Wayne

    For context, it would be helpful to read or listen to my “Last Lecture” (http://public.me.com/waynedickson2). But the gist of what I say there riffs on Chaucer’s comment about the Clerk of Oxenford: “gladly would he learn, and gladly teach.”

    My life has been about just that. And I’ve found in innumerable ways that, for me, neither learning nor teaching is complete without the other, and both together are greater than the sum of the parts. I’ll always continue learning, of course. But saying that is no more meaningful than saying I’ll always continue breathing. The problem will be finding satisfying ways of continuing to teach, one way or another.

    I’m going to add a postscript to the lecture, though. With due awareness of his willingness to fudge a citation or quotation or allusion etc., I’ve always loved Walter Pater’s Conclusion to [Studies in the] Renaissance. In the passage relevant here he quotes Victor Hugo to the effect that we are all like prisoners condemned to death, but with an indefinite stay of execution.

    That doesn’t make life futile. Rather, it makes each of its remaining moments infinitely valuable. In other words, I’m not going to wait around hoping opportunities to continue what I love might happen along. I’m going to get out there seek actively to find them.

  • Robert

    I am a teacher.

    I retired in 2005 after teaching psychology and human services courses for a couple of decades. After one year away, I came back as an (gasp) administrator. I now teach part time infrequently and provide marriage counseling one night a week in addition to my full time job of teaching faculty how to teach online, an irony which may come clear to you soon.

    Since I work at a community college, loads of 15-18 hours a term are common, but I recall one semester a few years back where I, in an absolute lapse in sanity, agreed to 21 hours (six courses).

    On more than one occasion that term, I found myself walking down the 500 hallway toward a yet to be determined classroom carrying two or three books I had snatched up on the way out of my office because I knew it was an afternoon class and it must be one of these and recognizing the backs of the heads of some of the students through the glass in the doors and walking in right on time and making my way to the front of the classroom speaking loudly enough to get their attention and saying something along the lines of "I was thinking on the way down here today we need to do something different in class today." And by the time I got to the lectern they were quiet and I knew what it was I was about to ask them to do. It was the worst and the best of times.

    I miss so much using my years of experience and intellect and my intuition, most often my intuition, to teach and to teach well on a daily, demanding basis. I still relish those moments when, for the students, there are no cell phones, no nodding heads, no preening and admiring, none of that. Just silence, listening, while I hold them the way an actor holds an audience with his performance. That's not bragging; that's what a good teacher does. If I can make them feel and tear up a bit and swear to themselves that they will never do that or always do that or learn more about that, so much the better. They do remember those moments too, I am convinced.

    Yesterday my wife and I attended the open house for the Iowa River Hospice in our town in Central Iowa where I was born and I have taught and administrated since the late 80s. One of the young ladies there several yards away through the crowd was wearing a name tag and caught my eye and smiled prettily as I recognized her at the same time and grinned and nodded back. Too far away to make contact then, we drifted while my wife and I examined new rooms and I assumed she answered questions about paint and patients. We made contact between floors on a landing and Paige hugged me and said "Thanks." I helped her with the decision to become a nurse, she said, and she was so happy to be at Hospice. She might have seen my eyes glisten. Hell, I don't mind, she has seen it before. What she didn't know is that my mom died not knowing for sure who we were two years ago while my family stood in a circle around her bed and a couple of Hospice workers rubbed her feet and held her hand and said your mom is gone now. Paige will do that too.

    I am a teacher.