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A First-Time Teacher
In His Fifties

David W. Johnson
I guess I'm one of the lucky ones: I was able to make a career shift into full-time college teaching at 53. I tell myself how lucky I am on days when I wonder about the possible truth of the saying, "Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach."

Most days I don't have time to think about it. As lecturer and outreach coordinator in the University of Maryland's department of communication, I run the university's largest internship program and teach a class in job-search skills. Outreach includes talking to groups of students and parents, organizing events, and editing publications. In the eyes of academe, I do grunt work. My position is not tenure-track. Yet it gives me the opportunity to teach students who want instruction from someone with professional experience. I have that experience.

For 12 years, I was a daily journalist, cranking out stories for a respected county newspaper. I covered enough night meetings to have a solid grasp on how potentially boring eternity could be.

At 35, I left journalism to become a publicist in the Harvard University Development Office. In my work, I often found myself explaining to younger writers and publicists how to perform the task at hand. Sometime in the early 1980s, my staff assistant looked up from whatever project we were working on and said she thought I would make a good teacher. That planted the seed-that I could teach at the college level.

Later, the nearly eight years I spent working as Phillips Exeter's director of communications among many excellent, dedicated teachers only confirmed this desire. I took every opportunity to teach that I could, from a mini-course on media to giving conference talks and guest lectures. When a faculty friend at Exeter became sick, I taught a couple of his English classes.

In one of those classes, I experienced my own "Harkness moment." It came during consideration of a key scene in Alan Paton's Too Late the Phalarope. Our discussion stumbled until one student explained to another student-and the class-the meaning of a key symbol in the scene. There was a collective "Aha" around the seminar table. This was heady stuff.

The transition has not always been smooth. During an interview at another prep school, when I suggested the possibility of teaching, a member of the search committee scoffed at the idea. She said I would be far too busy to even think about the classroom. Though I was the successful candidate, she was right. I was busy dealing with internal politics and finding a better job.

Eventually I found an administrative position at Penn State where I could combine skills and interests in two of my favorite fields: communications and the arts. Once I had my bearings, I brought my classroom aspirations to the attention of the College of Communications. A year later the college offered me the chance to teach evenings as an adjunct instructor in journalism. For the first time I taught complete courses. I became convinced that I wanted to do this full time.

A friend recently described me as a risk taker. Perhaps I am. A person seeking to make the kind of changes I have needs to be flexible in all ways: emotional, physical, financial, attitudinal and geographic. In pursuit of my desire to teach, I have lived in five states in six years and seen my salary drop by half, though this year it's bounced back.

Underlying many of these changes was an event that shook something fundamental in my view of life. In February 1995, a good friend-Academy English instructor James Valhouli-fell through the ice and drowned while skating on the Exeter River. A week or so before he died, I sat with him at a faculty meeting. These were not light-hearted gatherings. From the dour portraits on the wall to the uncomfortable wooden chairs, everything reminded attendees of the virtues of Puritan rigor. At the front table, an administrator recited recent honors that faculty members had received. I whispered to Jim, "So . . . what have you done lately?" He paused for almost an uncomfortable time-perhaps he hadn't caught my attempt at humor-and said finally, "I teach."

On my refrigerator door I've placed a message, in stylish calligraphy, that says, "To teach is to touch a life forever." Whether grounded in naiveté or idealism, I believe those words. My goal every teaching day is to convey something useful to my classes.

A while back, a friend who edits an alumni magazine asked me to write an article on alumni who had become college teachers. I visited one such teacher in her classroom at the U.S. Naval Academy, where students rise when the teacher enters and leaves. I don't get anything like that respect in my classroom. Students straggle in late. I hear the murmurs of conversation in my lecture course.

A number of colleagues lament the quality of today's students. It has begun to dawn on me that I may reach a day when I agree with them that much classroom thought and effort is wasted on students who neither want nor care to learn. At the moment I'm in denial. As someone who has just recently made the transition to full-time teaching, I have a convert's zeal for my new religion. Now 55, I feel privileged to teach.

—David W. Johnson

David W. Johnson was editor of The Exeter Bulletin from 1987 until 1995. 


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