Tonight I received a Teacher of the Year award at the college where I am employed, an award voted on by the students. We have three multi-discipline departments, the one I belong to being the largest. It is a small campus, with about six thousand students in a district with approximately 30 thousand students. I believe we have about 20 full-time faculty in our department, perhaps 50 for the campus.
It is the third time I’ve received this honor in the last six years, and it is an honor. The first time I won it was a District-wide award for Behavioral Sciences, a very large discipline. Considering that I had no clue and that I worked at the smallest of the three campuses (though I had taught at all three at one time or another), I was really taken aback. A few students marched into class with balloons and announced the results and requested my presence at a District awards dinner.
Here was an old guy, a tough educator as I understood it, with a very low retention rate at that time (actually I still have a low retention rate), being honored by students. I had spent nearly 23 years in my own commercial landscaping business following the dictum that no news was good news. In that business, the compliments were few and far between, mostly coming in the form of contracts. I had also spent four years as a substitute teacher in the K-12 system (mostly in the high school arena), a tough gig if there ever was one. Compliments were few and far between there as well, mostly coming in the form of being requested to fill in by full-time faculty.
That first award really meant something to me, though by that time in my life I had made so many mistakes that I would remain humble for the next 40 lifetimes, award or not.
Then we went to separate awards for each campus and I won again. I was still considered a tough teacher and I still had a low retention rate, but once again, the students voted for me. That was amazing because I had been department chair that year with a reduced teaching load, and it was the year I had my first hassle with administrators which led to my resignation of the chair duties, all before I had been granted tenure.
As it turned out, I was granted tenure anyway, and after years in business, tenure was a very foreign concept, one which also meant a lot to me. However, tenure doesn’t amount to much given the present administration’s proclivities, so I’ve tried to hide out, to perfect the art of invisibility. So the award was again a blessing and a surprise to me. That award, along with tenure, was a great counterweight to the problems I had with administration.
Then last week, the Dean of Students called and told me I should attend the upcoming awards dinner. She did that last time as well. I was stunned. My retention was going down, and I was increasingly frustrated trying to get information across to the students. I believe that I don’t show that frustration, a technique I picked up substituting (each day is a new day, don’t carry around yesterday, even if you still have to keep watch). But, nonetheless, it has been quite a semester. So, all in all, to receive the award (and a beautiful looking award it is) was another very humbling experience.
In a year marked my mother’s passing, the passing of another relationship, my foolish feelings at having ignored all the relationship signs (again), and then this. Sometimes life is very interesting. In the midst of me trying to learn, the students are honoring me for teaching.
The irony is not lost upon me.
Neither is the humility.