A Life Well Lived as a Teacher and the Journey is Not Over Yet

The Journey Began in Pratt, KS

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My love of learning and reading comes from my parents, John and Leota Arendale. I was the first of anyone in the family tree to attend college. I had a simple dream of teaching history at a community college. In 1979, my first teaching experience was at Pratt Community College (PCC) in south-central Kansas. PCC was half the size of the large psychology course of nearly a thousand students taught at the University of Minnesota (UMN). After seven years at PCC, I accepted a similar position at another tiny community college in Highland, KS. I would have been happy to have stayed in Pratt teaching my classes, but I had an opportunity to move closer to my elderly parents in the Kansas City area. Next on my journey was the University of Missouri at Kansas City (UMKC) where I helped lead the National (now International) Center for Supplemental Instruction (SI). While at UMKC, I helped conduct training workshops for other colleges how to implement SI at their campus to help students do better in difficult courses. I wondered what it would be like applying principles from the SI student study group program to teaching a history class.

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One should be careful what they wish for. I was delighted to be recruited for a history teaching position with General College at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities (UMN). I continued that role with the Department of Postsecondary Teaching and Learning and again with the Department of Curriculum and Instruction from where I will retire at the end of May 2019. My best memories of four decades in higher education include learning from my students, mentorship by my colleagues, and the friendships that were formed along the way. I was fortunate to live out my dream of teaching history. And working at an institution that I might not have been admitted to after high school graduation. Life is a curious journey.

It seems like only yesterday I taught my first history class at PCC. It has been four decades since that first class session and I still remember specific students and class activities along the way. Three years ago, I began phased retirement from UMN. I have been working on this reflection since then. The original plan was for a few paragraphs, but this has taken on a life of its own. While certainly not the best story, it is my story. I hope you enjoy it and reflect about your own journey.

Influence to Become a Teacher

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I always wanted to be a college history teacher. I think I was influenced by Mr. Ralph Dennis who was one of my high school teachers at Olathe High School (KS). I liked his approach to teaching that engaged us in the content while fostering a pleasant and encouraging learning environment. When I enrolled at Emporia State University (KS) as an undergraduate, the academic adviser told me to pick another future career since there had been no history teacher job openings for more than a decade in Kansas community colleges. Most often, their part-time college instructors who were full-time high school history teachers were directly promoted for the full-time teaching positions. I ignored the advice and completed twin undergraduate majors in history and philosophy and a Master’s degree in history. I was hired for my first college teaching job before I finished my graduate degree at ESU.

In addition to my high school teachers, I was also influenced by a verse in the Bible. In the book of Ephesians, the Apostle Paul talked about various spiritual gifts that God gives to each of us. When I read “teaching” as one of the gifts, I thought that applied to me. In the following verse, Paul explained that the gifts were “to equip the saints for the work…” While the context of the Bible verses is focused on the church, I perceived it more broadly. My mission was to teach college students so that they could make an even more effective difference in their world.

Getting to Know My Students

My favorite time of the semester is day one of the history course. Freshly scrubbed faces, the smell of toothpaste, and their attentiveness described the students. While I began the class, I was aware of their concentration. You could literally feel their eyes. I think they were trying to figure me out. It may be a little over dramatic to say they were looking into my soul to see what kind of person and teacher I was. I will miss the interaction with them. They helped me to keep myself mentally young. Even though now I embrace my status as a senior citizen to obtain discounts at restaurants.

My friend Sydney Stansbury advised me to get closer to the students to better understand their personal as well as academic lives. Leon Hsu, a colleague of mine, had an activity where students could earn a few points of extra credit if they came to his office for a few minutes of questions. It is such a great way to learn more about them and connect names with faces. I adopted that activity as well. The quiet students in the class opened up to me during these short chats. I asked them about their cultural heritage, best learning activities from other classes, and suggestions to make my class better. They were not shy on providing concrete things to change and those to preserve. Their honesty was refreshing and often humbling. I learned that the question is not if they have a part-time job, rather it was how many part-time jobs they were stitching together to pay for high tuition and textbook prices. Students often referred to tuition costs as the “second tuition”. Ouch. Their lives were more complicated than I ever realized. As a single person with no children, I lived a pretty simple life. When students display difficulty with assignments and exams, it was more often about managing the multiple demands on their lives rather than lack of interest in the course. Their experience is so different than my residential college experience nearly a half-century earlier at Emporia State University.

Understanding My Role in the Big Picture

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It has been more difficult than I thought to retire from college teaching. It is not the actually teaching, but rather the interaction with the students. Regardless of how much older I became, my first-year students were always 18 years young. It gives a false sense of being younger. A favorite episode of the Twilight Zone TV show was “Changing of the guard”. It is about a single literature professor who was “retired” from his position at a private boy’s school after 51 years. The school board decided a younger teacher was needed to better relate to the young men. The professor took it hard and walked over to a nearby statue of the great educator Horace Mann. The professor looked at the statue and his most famous quotation, “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.” While at the statue, the professor heard the school bell ringing. He walked to the school and then into his old classroom. As he sat at his desk, the ghosts of some of his previous students appeared. Each took a moment to explain to the professor how something from his class had made a difference later in their lives, often just before their premature death. After a few minutes, they disappeared leaving the professor with confirmation that his life had made a difference with many others. <Click this link for more information about this Twilight Zone episode.>

This episode resonated with me. While most of my colleagues in the UMN Department of Curriculum and Instruction continue to have interactions with their graduate students throughout their careers, it is seldom that I cross paths with my former first-year students. I wonder what impact I made on my students. I have been fortunate to keep contact with a student from my first history course at UMN. Brian Fredrickson is now with UMN Extension as the Leadership and Civic Engagement educator in West Central, MN. It is fun to see the future through his eyes.

At the beginning of the academic term for the past decade, I listen to a song by the band .38 Special named “Teacher, Teacher”. One stanzas is “Teacher, teacher, can you teach me? Can you tell me all I need to know? Teacher, teacher, can you reach me? Or will I fall when you let me go?” It reminded me to make my class relevant for my students. It reminded me to be more explicit using class activities to connect today’s headlines with the past people, events, and history forces that prompted those headlines. Sometimes, I asked my students to listen to the song and then write a job description for me in the history class. Their answers were very interesting and instructive for me. A frequent item requested by them to be treated with respect. <Click this link for the song lyrics.>

My Personal and Professional Development

I have been a fortunate teacher who has been taught many lessons by my students and mentored by recognized teaching experts throughout my career. They have generously spent time with me to help improve my teaching. I do not compare myself with others who are far more skilled than I. It may seem trite, but I work to be the best teacher I could be each semester that I taught and continue to innovate until the last semester. Sort of like “become the best me that I can be.” As an introvert, I naturally reflect on my previous work. The great basketball coach at UCLA, Mr. John Wooden and his teams were successful for many reasons. One of them was that in preparing for an upcoming game, Mr. Wooden did not analyze the upcoming opponent which was the standard procedure. Instead, he worked with his team to carefully study the previous game and improve on the mistakes. Mr. Wooden believed that if a team continually improved itself, they would always be ready for the next team. <Click this link for more info about Mr. Wooden.>

I am my own harshest critic and work to address my deficiencies. I am a big Star Wars fan. Yoda was the Jedi master who trained young Luke Skywalker in the ways of the Force and how to defeat the enemy. Some of my favorite quotes of Master Yoda are: “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering”, “If no mistake have you made, yet losing you are…a different game you should play”, and “The greatest teacher, failure is”. When I look back, the most powerful one was “No! Try Not! Do or do not, there is no try.” Considering my modest background, more has been accomplished than I ever could have predicted. “Trying” can provide an excuse for failure. Instead, commitment to “do” is a vision for success.

Being an Introvert and a Public Teacher

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Teaching is a curious occupation for me as I am an introvert. I am uncomfortable at large gatherings due to feeling overwhelmed. For some reason, I am comfortable in the classroom with the students. I think people make assumptions about others who live their lives in the public eye and assume they are equally comfortable meeting and interacting with others. I never knew how to express my feelings on this issue until I listened to the song “Limelight” by Rush (a favorite rock group). The lyrics for the band are written by the drummer who is very introverted. The band performed for enormous arenas of screaming fans who may perceive they have a relationship with the band members. While two members of the band interact with fans after the concert, the drummer stays in his hotel room. He is uncomfortable with fans walking up to him to talk if recognized in the public. This confuses some fans that he is aloof. On the contrary, he is acting normally for an introvert. In the first verse of the song Limelight he wrote, “Living on a lighted stage - Approaches the unreal - For those who think and feel - In touch with some reality - Beyond the gilded cage.” I finally got it about me. I live a very public life, but I crave private time to refresh. <Click here the Limelight song lyrics.>

Reflecting on my Past and Future

I have been a fortunate and grateful person. When I began four decades ago, I have never been unemployed. I have only experienced five job interviews and was selected for jobs at four colleges. The employment benefits have been great and still am mystified why I am paid to do something that I love so much. For the most part, it is like working at a toy store. Everything that I could need has been provided and I get to work with students who are young, bright, diverse, and interesting. While some class sessions may be somewhat mundane, more often they are engaging and actually fun. Where else can you on a daily basis have conversation with young people who are exchange students, recent immigrants, and those who were immigrants from longer ago? The cultural backgrounds of the students often represent more than thirty countries. As I mentioned earlier, I have learned much from them. Sometimes when I give public talks, I thank tax payers for providing such a wonderful job and acknowledge the trust that parents and other family members have placed in me with teaching their child, grandchild, or other family member. Or sometimes I just say that I have won the “academic Powerball lottery” with the jobs I have been entrusted at four colleges.

When I look back on four decades of teaching, I try to figure out how I finished up at UMN. Four decades ago, I began working at two tiny Kansas community colleges and somehow completed my journey at UMN, a Research One institution. I enjoyed telling my students that I would probably not been admitted to this selective admissions, research intensive, university after graduating from high school. Maybe that is an overstatement. I say it because more first-year students than I imagine also are surprised to be at UMN, sometimes question their academic capabilities, and wonder whether they really belong at UMN or college in general, regardless of their previous academic success in high school. The issue of “impostership” is a powerful challenge for many students to overcome. Dr. Stephen Brookfield’s talks and writings on this topic have been very helpful to me as I navigated different roles and institutional climates. I sometimes have felt like an imposter around my gifted colleagues at UMN. It has provided me with another way to connect with my students and encourage them.

Life is composed of innumerable decisions and occurrences. Some that we make and others made by other forces for us. I tend to go with divine influence. But, other examples of influence are possible.

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The reason for including the photo of Tom Hanks from "Forrest Gump" is that I think my journey is somewhat like the film character. A bird feather is a metaphor that begins and ends the film. At the beginning of the film, the first image is of a feather floating in the air and Forrest picks it up when it lands at his feet and then he places it inside his book <Click link for YouTube clip>. The film ends with the feather returning to the air through the final scene Click link for YouTube <clip #1> and <clip #2>. Before the final feather scene, Forrest is at the grave of his wife. He reflects on his life and the journey. For me, I see the guiding hand of God in an amazing series of events that continue to lead me. Below is a clip from the movie where Tom Hanks muses about his life. Have a Kleenex handy.

Another movie that I like is “The Adjustment Bureau”. It is about a central character and how his life had been shaped by others. There was a central plan for Matt Damon’s life, he just did not see the individual actions that guided him. It is a good film about the smallest parts of our lives and how they influence the future. I highly recommend the film. BTW, after watching the film you may think twice about guys walking around wearing hats and what they are up to.

Where do I go now that the paid professional job finally comes to an end? I have lots of interests and plans, but I just look at the future a day at a time. Shakespeare wrote a line for Hamlet, who said he was bound for “an undiscovered country whose bourne no travelers return.” Hamlet was looking to his demise with a mystery ahead since no one has come back from there to tell the rest of us. (Except for Jesus Christ who was executed, rose from the dead, and was seen by more than 500 people afterwards). I borrow Shakespeare’s line and reinterpret it that the undiscovered country for me is the future. I am excited for my journey to continue with new adventures to experience. May your future path be as pleasant as mine has been and will continue to be. I hope I get the opportunity to read about your journey someday. Thanks for reading, watching, and listening. – David Arendale

P.S. To lighten up this probably much too long, serious, and introspective reflection, I leave you with a fun music video. I love animation movies. I love Disney, Pixar, and the other studios that produce them as well. They can take us to worlds we can only imagine. One of those rather strange worlds was in the original Lego Movie. The theme song to the movie is nearly as hypnotic as “It’s a small world after all” from the ride at Disneyland. At least for me, it took weeks before I could get it out of my head. The same is true for the Lego Movie theme track, “Everything is AWESOME!!!”. The odd thing is, the lyrics are actually pretty good. We do need to form more teams and quit dividing ourselves from one another through artificial boundaries. With all the anger, hatred, and violence that dominates our world today, I think it is healthy to escape it for awhile and live for a few moments in another world. Life really is awesome if we just take a step back and be grateful for the simple things that we have. Maybe we can take part of that imaginary world back to this one and make it a little bit better for us and others. Enjoy.