Teachers make a difference

July 28, 2010


After 30 years in teaching — 16 of those at KU — it’s hard not to sit down on a hot summer’s day and wonder whether it’s all been worth it. In spite of some state legislators’ opinions, university teaching isn’t an easy job; it takes quite a lot of time and energy. Anybody who has had to lecture six to eight hours each week will tell you that the energy drain is significant.

You also don’t get rich being a university professor, although those of us who teach in the professional schools are certainly well paid. And morale on campus hasn’t been the best this past year; just a few too many scandals, incidents, and distractions for my taste.

But, to be honest, most university faculty don’t choose their careers based on ease of the job or compensation. We do it because we believe in the enterprise. We believe in the importance of living “the life of the mind.” We do it because we want to teach what we have learned from others and in our own research. We do it because we are curious and want to learn more about our own subjects, whether we study astrophysics, quantum computers, or ancient Greek poetry. And for the most part, we do it gladly.

Nevertheless, all university teachers have moments of doubt. Mine usually come in the summer when I’m too hot, too busy to go on vacation someplace cool and wondering why, after 30 years, I don’t just retire and go to northern Maine, buy a small cabin in the woods and spend my time fishing, reading and writing. Certainly, it’s a thought that’s becoming more and more attractive. But then something happens to make me want to stay here and stay teaching.

Last week I had a message that a former student, Eric Meyer, who wanted to “friend” me on Facebook. I’ve been on Facebook for about two years. I joined because I found it a good way to keep in touch with students, both past and present. I enjoy seeing how they’re doing and, sometimes, the best way to reach my students is through Facebook. (I just cannot get used to Twitter and its 140 character limit on message length.) I tend to check my Facebook page two or three times a day.

I was really pleased to get Eric’s “friend” request. In typically modest fashion, he wasn’t sure that I remembered him, but I did. Eric was one of my favorite students when he was at KU. He graduated West Point and served in the military and was taking a break to get a law degree. He was a great student and is a great person. After he graduated from law school, he went back into the military and joined the Judge Advocate General’s Corps.

In his “friend” request, he told me he was back in civilian life and now was practicing law. That really pleased me. But he also said something else, that I had been a positive factor in his law school experience and in his life. When I read that, all of my late middle-aged doubts about being a teacher disappeared. That was why I became a teacher. To teach and be a positive influence in my students‚ lives.

Even though I know I don’t always succeed, having a former student tell me that I had helped him just felt great. I suppose that my cabin in the Maine woods, my fishing and retirement reading and writing projects will just have to wait a few more years — thanks to Eric.

— Mike Hoeflich, a distinguished professor in the Kansas University School of Law, writes a regular column for the Journal-World. Read his blog at http://www2.ljworld.com/ weblogs/grumpy-professor/


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