R&R: Retirement and Reinvention

orgamiI will retire from teaching at the end of this month after spending 49 years in the game.

I began my career as a 21-year-old journalism teacher and publications sponsor (yearbook, newspaper and creative writing magazine) at Spring Woods High School in Houston, TX.  I was young and fresh out of J-school—the same college where Dan Rather studied—and I believed in excellent writing and truth and democracy.

I was fired at the end of my second year because my students published articles that, no matter how well-written and researched, criticized the administration, and I’d failed to send the teen-aged boys to the vice principal’s office for wearing their hair long. Both administrators had been football coaches and shared a policy of their-way-or-the-highway.

But my students had won every first and second place in UIL district competition, and the newspaper was named Best in State the year I was fired, so the highway led to Lee College in Baytown, TX, where I was hired to start its journalism program. Students transferred from the program I started and immediately got positions on the Daily Texan at the University of Texas.

I left Lee College when a new president wanted to hire his own PR person and needed the journalism job to sweeten the deal. Houston Community College hired me, but I got an offer from University of Houston Downtown, so I resigned from HCC at the end of a summer contract and began a five-year stint at UHD.

Again, I was hired to establish a journalism program, and the newspaper began earning awards from state and national organizations. I think I would probably be there today, except at the end of five years, a senior college or university has to offer you tenure or let you go. UHD decided to grow a technical writing program instead of a journalism program, and so the program and I were shut down.

Houston Community College was looking for a public information office at the time. I applied and came in second to Napoleon Johnson, the first African-American on-air broadcaster in the Houston market.  But Fate stepped in, and when Johnson resigned before he began so he could be Mayor Jim McCann’s Communications Director of the City of Houston, HCC president J.B. Whitely called me and asked if I was still interested in the job. I said yes, of course, and in moving from college professor to college administrator, I doubled my salary.

I spent a dozen years at HCC, advancing to community relations and public affairs director and earning more money than most of my cohorts around the state. Trust me, I earned that salary. In addition to marketing multiple programs at instructional sites, I led a talented team that created award-winning brochures, annual reports, program newsletters, radio and television commercials, and special events. I wrote speeches for the president and various board members, served as the chair of a statewide communications committee for the Texas community college presidents’ association, and conducted definitive research in marketing professional development seminars to business and industry.

In 1991, John Pickelman, then newly appointed chancellor for North Harris Montgomery Community College District (now the Lone Star College System) recruited me to be the vice chancellor of institutional advancement, only one of two such positions in Texas higher education. I led another talented team with the student recruiting slogan of Best START* (Success Takes a Real Teacher), focusing on the excellent classroom credentials of the college faculty, and I shepherded the college foundation to earn its non-profit status.  The recruitment campaign resulted in a record enrollment, and the foundation began to function, but the stress of the job and a recent divorce took a serious toll on my health.

Following a month-long medical leave, which consisted of being tethered to oxygen in my home, I returned to the classroom as a journalism and developmental writing professor at the North Harris College within the district (now known as LSC-North Harris). I have been in the classroom ever since, and as happy as Brer Rabbit in the briar patch.

My students have distinguished themselves by writing winning essays in scholarship competitions, and I have served my institution outside of the classroom as its Faculty Senate president. My colleagues favored me with its 2006 Faculty Excellence award, and the administration nominated me for the prestigious Piper Award in that same year.

My most treasured awards have been notes from former students who credit my teaching methods and personal cheer-leading with their success in landing the careers of their dreams. I know, of course, they were the ones who did the heavy lifting. But I also understand that they are expressing their gratitude that I urged them to be their best instead of doing the minimum.

I enjoy a 4.9 (out of 5) rating (RateMyProfessor.com) complete with the coveted Chili Pepper icon and the tags: gives good feedback, inspirational, respected by students, tough grader, clear grading criteria, participation matters, and hilarious. I do have a great sense of humor that I bring to the classroom. Students are stressed enough without needing humorless professors breathing down their necks. They don’t need to be contained by rigid rubrics that make grading easier for me; they need a safe environment that encourages the writing process and supports the idea that real writing happens in revision. They need to know they have good ideas and have a right to form their own opinions.

Although I can honestly say I am a seasoned professional, I haven’t rested on my years of experience. However reluctantly, I’ve embraced technology, and last year I created an online English course that received rave reviews at the end of the semester. I could have sidestepped that challenge, but that’s not my style. I decided to finish strong.

One more year and I could celebrate a Silver Anniversary, but it’s time. And so, as I enter the late afternoon of life, I’m opening to its possibilities. Ideas for reinvention heat my blood. In the words of poet Robert Browning: “The best is yet to be, the last of life, for which the first was made.”