Reflections on Beginning My 20th Year as an Educator

It is less than a week to the start of another academic year, my 19th at UT-Martin, but my 20th as a full time college teacher.  That’s a lot of years.  And a lot of students.

When this time of year rolls around, I get nostalgic for my college days, thinking about the great professors I had the pleasure of learning from, the friends I met from so many different places, some of whom I still hear from.

And I also think about my responsibility as an educator.  My job is to try and convey the importance of a body of information to my students.  But it’s not just facts I want them to learn: I want them to learn how to learn, and to internalize the joy of learning something new, seeing connections, and synthesizing their own ideas.  I suppose every professor wants that for their students.

A few years ago, I was asked by my department chair if I would be interested in serving with a new group called the Students of Concern Team.  I had no clue what it was, but being the team player, I agreed.  The group meets to discuss and consider how best to serve students who may be having such problems that they are potentially threats to themselves or others.  We are not the ones to intervene, but we try and make sure the students get the professional help they need to succeed, and in some cases, to survive.

Through this group, I have become more aware of people’s problems, especially mental and emotional problems.  I have become more empathetic in so many ways.  My work with this group has led me to understand better the subject of suicide, too often whispered about, but too avoidable not to openly discuss.

This has been the most rewarding and the most heartbreaking assignment.  But I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Also, a few years ago, I was privileged to be able to develop a course dealing with Environmental Health, the sub-discipline of Public Health that considers the role of environmental factors in maintaining human health.  Again, I have learned so much about the fundamentals of health issues, about the roles of population, pollution and poverty in influencing human health.  I have learned about how important sanitation and clean water is to changing the economy of a community, and how some simple things that we take for granted like adequate wells and separate septic systems can improve the status of women by improving health, reducing the work of carrying water, and allowing for education.  My Intro to Environmental Health has become a popular course among students, with a couple of them electing to pursue Public Health careers, perhaps with a little influence from that experience.

Helping people and helping people learn to help people has become my passion.  So many times, I think that if I had known about these areas when I started college, my life would have been very different.  And yet, I believe that everything happens for a reason.  No, I do not think this a just the result of some puppet play.  But everything I have learned and done throughout my life, the people I have met, the students I have taught, the wonderful woman I met here and married, all of these things have shaped me into a better man.

There was also a time when I wanted to make my mark by changing the world in some big way.  But now, I don’t think that is necessary.  I can affect little things, plant ideas with my students and let them cultivate them to grow into larger things.  I may not change the world in a big way, but if I can help one person in some small way, I will have changed it for the better.

As a person of faith, I am reminded of Paul’s instruction to the Galatians:  “6.9 And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. 10 So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.”  I believe that doing good for the right reasons is not a wearying thing.  It refreshes.  It may be trying at times, as it is when working with some people, or any people.  But to know you have done what is right and good is gratifying.

However, the desire to help and serve becomes a need that is never truly satisfied.  There will always be more that need help.  There will be other causes to champion.  There will be other forms of oppression to defeat.  There will be other barriers of ignorance that must be torn down.  The work is never done.

But as that person of faith, I am confident that I am doing what I need to do, what I was born to do, to help restore the very good creation to its fundamental goodness.  One lesson at a time.  One life at a time.

May all who teach succeed and find fulfillment in your efforts to make the world a better place.  May all who serve find joy in that service.  And may we never grow weary in doing good.



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