Insights from a Retired Professor Who Returns to Teaching (Opinion)

When I retired from Zoom last June, I watched my screen go dark and soon felt remorse. Unlike some colleagues, I didn’t feel free, although I knew I wouldn’t miss the zoom learning. But already I have missed the necessary feeling, affecting the young mind. Plus, I missed my colleagues and my identity as a professor.

I gladly agreed to return home to teach a course for the spring semester after a goalless semester. And so, on a cold day in early February, I entered a seminar room mapping out my 13-week syllabus and all the old sensations: the fun of anticipation as well as the butterflies in my stomach. The college was back to teaching personally, and I was excited to be able to enter the classroom again.

I sat at the head of the seminar table, in an extra heated room, wearing a mask and ready. The mask felt heavy and pinched my ears. For the moment, I question my decision. Sweat dripping from my mask and reborn as a visitor from Amerita, I need to express my interest in starting our three-hour creative writing seminar with 15 pairs of eyes looking back at me. Why am I back? Will I regret the decision? I couldn’t read their facial expressions, nor could they read mine, as much as I tried to raise my eyebrows clearly and try to widen my eyes with curiosity about their interest in the course. Yet we were here, face-to-face (or mask-to-mask), with the grim reality of three-hour weekly seminars on top of individual and group conferences scheduled during office hours each week.

Always relying on facial expressions to determine how I was working as a teacher, it was new. I couldn’t say monotony out of anger, I didn’t even see a hint of excitement after my opening remarks. But something else was new, too.

I felt a new freedom from the pressure of consequences. Will I inspire them? Would they appreciate a well-crafted syllabus? Will they move forward as writers? Will they laugh at my episode? Will they write a positive assessment that can capture all my hard work? None of this mattered much at this stage of my career. My ego was irrelevant. After all, education was more about self-care than raising others. I was determined to have fun in this classroom — I was teaching for complete enjoyment without any worries. I needed it more than them – to see a group of students sitting around a seminar table again instead of being stuck inside that little box on the screen.

We started with a writing practice, which told them to consider “being there” in their childhood memories and to write from that place. In a short time, we became a writing community. Long ago, the masks seemed less cumbersome and the students were animated and communicative. They shared their work with each other and with me and at the end of the semester, I felt old joy watching their progress as writers and readers.

I tested myself more. For decades, I have focused solely on prose. Now I have added poetry to the mix and forced them to write haiku in class, even sharing my own with them. We had a more interactive experience with contact with the Art Museum, where students wrote descriptions of imaginary events or portraits of characters after an in-depth study of selected scenes in painting and photography. If a practice flops or any of my jokes do not elicit a response, I proceed independently without self-complaint. It was crime-free, thought-free education at its best.

Moving forward

As the semester progressed, I began to feel a sense of responsibility towards others, grading, office hours. When retired friends talked about their planned travel, their newly found freedom, and the luxury of writing something new and unexpected, I was jealous. I miss walking and exercising in my spare time, time with my grandchildren, time for old friends and more time for extended family. Eventually, I realized I was ready. It was worth returning to teaching. It has shown me that I no longer feel the need for this in students. My own needs have grown, neglected, and they have become secondary.

As the end of the semester draws to a close, we plan to take the last class in the green just outside the academic building. Our farewell was as awkward as ever. Now without masks, we noticed each other’s faces, tired from a semester of combined hard work. They told me that they were grateful that I had returned to teach in this class, and I did.

Then I left, next to the beautiful garden around the art museum, next to the building that was the English department office where I picked up my mail and dipped it into the Hershey’s bowl on the way to class, the ceiling-to-floor bookcase next to my office, my car Crossing the path that I have traveled for about 42 years. One by one those landmarks were getting lost. Nothing was pulling me back. I was moving forward, I thought. My heart was not sinking. I wasn’t as sad as I did at the end of that last zoom class, or so it seemed.

Suddenly, I heard the voices of the students calling behind me, “Professor Glasser! Professor Glaser! ” Ah, to hear that title, to feel that identity once more. I turned and saw three students running after me; One was carrying my briefcase. I leaned against a tree.

How could I leave that favorite briefcase? Does that mean I’m not done I’ll be back? Or does it mean I’m gone forever, or do I just lean my old briefcase against the tree to plant seeds or roots for the future? Or is it easier that I wanted to leave behind the biggest burden of all: the pile of aggravated paper that is hidden inside, waiting for my attention? In fact, did this thing finally pave the way for my retirement, this time? We’ll find out next spring … maybe.

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