December 16th, 2015

Working to Make a Difference


students in a lecture hall

“When are you going to retire?” “Why are you still working?” These are questions I’m asked regularly. Worried that the question is motivated by signs of diminished mental acuity, I scour old and new writings looking for evidence. Should I stop working? I wonder.

Teaching Professor Blog On a recent flight back to State College I sat next to a Penn State student, a junior accounting and finance major. She sounded like one of those students we’re only too happy to have in class. She talked about her courses, projects, assignments she was working on, her teachers, and how excited she was about her chosen fields.

“And what do you do?” she asked.
“Oh, I work for you,” I replied.
“How so?”
“Well, I work with college profs on ways to teach that help students learn.”
“I’ve had quite a few teachers who could use your help,” she observed. “You know, a good teacher makes such a difference for students. I have this accounting prof who is just fantastic. I leave his class and I am so motivated. I do homework for that class first and I really study for his exams, and not just for the grade; I really want to learn the material.”
“What’s his name?” I asked, and when she told me I felt a big smile crossing my face. “I know him! I helped him when he was a brand-new prof.”

I didn’t tell her that he wasn’t a very good teacher back then. But I remember his commitment to doing better, his openness to suggestions, and his willingness to learn. And now he’s having this kind of impact on a student! I wish I’d had a glass of wine—a toast seemed so in order.

I keep working because I love to teach, and my current students (college faculty) are the best of all students—curious, intrinsically motivated, and willing to make comments, ask questions, do the reading, take notes, and challenge ideas—they are Ivy League learners. Beyond my love of teaching and great students, I keep working because it’s work that matters. Done well, it makes a difference in all the right directions; not done well, it makes a difference in very wrong directions. It’s the kind of work where the stakes are high.

Many years ago I figured out that if you lived for 75 years, that equals 657,000 hours. If you have a student in class three hours a week for 15 weeks, and that student studies your course material six hours a week (I know, a near perfect student), that’s 135 hours of the student’s lifetime. That’s the tiny slice of time you and your content have to make a difference in that student’s life. We’ve had teachers who did; we’ve had students tell us we did. But what a challenge!

It’s 4 a.m. and I’m in bed beside a beagle and a big fellow, both gently snoring. I’m awake, working—mulling over ideas for this post. What’s the best message for the end of another semester and year, for this special season when peace and celebration are possible? What might encourage reflection and offer inspiration? I’m up against the challenge teachers routinely face: finding something in the content with the power to touch and transform during that brief time of connection.

I decide on this message: the importance of what we do course after course, semester after semester, year after year doesn’t change. It’s just as important the first time you teach, the last time, and all those times in between. In the beginning, most of us aspire to make a big difference in lots of students’ lives. After a few years we’re more realistic, puttering along, doing our best not to make a difference in the wrong direction, not making a difference at all, maybe making a little difference, but still believing that what we teach and what students can learn has the power to make a huge difference.

I teach on, hoping to make that big difference, not because I care about glory or legacy, but because it’s work that matters, and I’ve never felt that way about cleaning the house.

  • Joe McDonagh

    An enjoyable read, so thank you. It reminds me that teaching is a gift and work is sacred. Have a blessed Christmas.

  • Sheila Pinchin

    MaryEllen, I can picture you writing this blog article and want you to know that you never fail to inspire with your articles! Please keep on teaching us!

  • Cindy Masek

    Thank you for putting in words some of the reasons why at 55 I still want to finish my doctorate. What I do does matter and so I intend to keep doing it for quite some time.

  • Fran Dulcich

    Maryellen, I cannot thank you enough for this post!! I'm constantly asked those same questions and very often I'm filled with doubt and think, "Maybe they're right. Maybe it's time to retire." But then my heart says, "I love what I do!" I'm excited about teaching in the classroom and working with faculty! I'm not ready to give that up. So thank you for validating my feelings and giving me hope and support to continue!!

  • grhafer30

    I'm hoping for at least another nine years. After reading your essay, I'm shooting for a solid fifteen.

  • Illysa Izenberg

    Keep working and writing! You do make a difference 🙂

  • twti2015

    One of our faculty members still inspires students even though he is retired. Students call him to share news about their careers, families, babies, and to just chat. I asked him how he inspired his students and his answer was that he loved teaching students about "life in the trenches," not exactly what's in the textbook but all the ins and outs of life: how to treat people they work with; how to deal with failure; how to live ethically. He would read poetry in his business classes, share stories about how he dealt with life, and at the end of the semester, give graduating seniors a photocopy of his hand. He said that sometimes life can be hard, unfair, or confusing, so, when a student needed some comfort and inspiration, they could step backward to the hand taped on the wall of their office door, and know that he was there for them to give them that "pat on the back" to get through that bump in the road. I thought that was such a nice way to continue to be part of his students' lives.

  • Dear Maryellen,
    Thank you for all the advice and guidance you provide through your blog and the newsletter.
    Peace and joy to you this holiday season.

  • Cherie

    Dear Maryellen,
    You are such a treasure in person, in print, and online! I learn something new every time and very much hope you will continue to illuminate our minds, hearts, and classes for many years to come!

  • Shawnalee Whitney

    Thank you for this! I love the life I've spent teaching. The interactions with students, the satisfaction in seeing their aha moments, and the fact that I teach in a discipline where the things they learn has immediate impact in students' lives have contributed to a rewarding career spanning almost three decades. Starting about 15 years ago, I was tapped now and again to lead faculty workshops designed to improve teaching and learning. Before I knew it, I was leading more and more workshops, getting involved with and leading faculty learning communities, and was soon drafted to serve on committees related to faculty development. Ultimately, this led to my movement into a leadership role in our faculty development center. Not long ago, a colleague asked me why I'd left teaching. I replied, of course, that I hadn't left teaching. In truth, I continue to teach undergraduates in at least one course a term, but beyond that I'm continuing in my role as a teacher in my work with faculty. The colleague continued, explaining that he'd always seen me as someone who really enjoyed the teaching side of higher education, and it was clear he thought I'd moved away from that. I explained that my work in faculty development allows me to continue teaching and enables me to expand my impact by improving the teaching and learning experience for even more people. I feel very fortunate that I have spent my professional life in this way.

  • Luvern Dokter

    Great article. While I am not a degreed person, I can relate very well to this message. I am part time Instructor for the FAA. The goal of instruction is to start new safety inspectors in the right direction and re enforce that during their careers. It is the most rewarding thing I have ever done in my 75 year life. Feedback comes all the time. Only

  • Pat Shoemaker

    Thank you again for the inspiration! So many times I open up Faculty Focus and it seems your advice and resources are specifically directed to help me "just in time." You have widened the world of college teaching.

  • Jack Orr

    Thank you, Maryellen!
    Your words give me a sense of community.

  • Laura

    Thank you, Maryellen. I for one am very glad that you are still working because your posts still inspire me, offering tasty food for thought and constant challenges. Unfortunately, I know my mental acuity will not last even until regular retirement age so I will need to retire early, but hopefully I will still be able to contribute in some way. It is true we do it mainly for the "psychological income" and I love getting "paid" when a student tells me I made a difference in their lives.

  • Chacko Jacob

    Thanks, Maryellen, for this article. I am nowhere near retiring but still found the article relevant. I have taught some courses for many years and wondered if it is time to move on and teach something else. But every time I get a fresh bunch of students in class and start teaching them, I get transformed myself and motivated! For them it is the first time and I want to make sure I teach them well. Have a blessed Christmas.

  • Amy Forss

    Dear Maryellen,

    Great post. I had to chuckle at your ending sentence. It's the passion of teaching, the excitement of making a difference, that keeps me doing it year after year and yes, I've not felt that way about housework, not even once.

    Thanks for sharing!

    Amy Forss

  • docpipnz

    Great blog, Maryellen. I have just tweeted it. It's pretty much the same reason I am still teaching (past retirement age, grin!)

  • D.K.Chattopadhyay

    Respected Maryellen Weime,

    It's an excellent presentation which synchronizes the inner feelings of any noble teacher. I could not join in teaching in 1984 as I was much busy in R&D activities for development of new industrial products. I was much unhappy then.However I got the opportunity to join teaching profession in 2002.I got immense pleasure in taking interactive classes of engineering topics correlating with it's application & natural phenomenon to reach the students. I am now 66+ I would like to be happy working in teaching as long as opportunity will be available to me even in the countries like UK,USA,CANADA Etc. to come in contact with great professors as well.

    Professor D.K.Chattopadhyay

  • Charles Tichy, Ph.D

    After a total of 45 years (and still counting), of being in the classroom (teaching), many of my colleagues and friends ask me when I'll stop and "really" retire. Since I love teaching so much, my answer is, "They'll have to carry me away!!" I sincerely relate to my community college students simply because that's exactly how I started. As a matter of fact, that's the first statement in the first session of all my classes is: "I am one of you! Yes, I am one of you!!" Then I explain that I sat where they are sitting. I know what it's like being a non-traditional student, and of all the degrees that I have, I hold that Associate's Degree in highest esteem. That's the one that gave direction, and that's the one that gave confidence to go on.