After 40 years in class: Do I hear 50?

Teacher talk

Posted: Friday, May 23, 2003

To paraphrase Mark Twain, "The reports of my retirement have been greatly exaggerated." True, some of my students think 65 is older than dirt, and many of my colleagues believe that 40-plus years in the classroom simply affirm my insanity; but dammit, I'm having too much fun to quit.

People who truly care about education (unfortunately these number far fewer than I'd like) sometimes ask, "How do kids today compare with kids in the '60s when you started teaching?" My answers generally revolve around a positive apex something like this: Young people today are more adult, they are more open and honest, and above all they are more intelligent.

The accelerated adulthood is exemplified in the clothes they wear, the cars they drive, the movies they watch, and the responsibilities they so adequately shoulder. Society is demanding earlier maturity and for the most part our youth are responding admirably.

The honesty is perhaps the most essential, and the most disparaged, of the advancements of today's young. In a world in which lies seem to predominate, the young breathe a refreshing air of frankness. Those of us who give lip service to the truth sometimes find it disturbing to hear it "told like it is," but our children revel in this honesty. Thank God.

The intelligence of today's students is of a far more practical nature than the pseudo-knowledge we used to be saddled with. Fewer students know that the Battle of Hastings was fought in 1066, but many more can articulate why we ought to avoid further imperialistic war. Fewer can underline prepositions in a grammar exercise, but legions more can write highly voiced and readable papers. When faced with a research project deadline, fewer young people plagiarize an encyclopedia while a frighteningly expert number of them edit a movie, create a computer program, or assemble a Power-Point presentation.

Today's educational system, indeed our entire world, issues far more essential challenges to our young than we ever have before. The reason why I'm still in the classroom after 41 exciting years is because our kids are doing such a fantastic job of meeting all of those challenges. And the serendipity of this is that every day I find myself more willing and more capable of overcoming my life's obstacles. With the help of those beautiful minds upcoming, I fully intend to spend at least another 10 years learning from my students.

• Bill Chalmers is a teacher of English at Juneau-Douglas High School.

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