Jill Silos-Rooney, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor of History at MassBay Community College and the author of The Open Academic blog. She has been teaching for 23 years and is still trying to complete her book manuscript for the most patient publishers in the world.
Upon my college graduation, flush with success and proud of my achievement, a friend derisively asked, “Teaching? How are you going to make any money doing that?” Well, I wasn’t – and I knew that. For me, teaching (first high school, then college) has never been about financial gain, which is a good thing because there isn’t any.
But it was definitely about personal gain: I reap tremendous benefits from the opportunity to share my great passion for history and show students that it’s OK to spurn cynicism and cool detachment in favor of enthusiasm for learning. This is probably fundamentally selfish: I get truly jazzed when students respond to the subject I’m teaching because that means I have shown them one of the distinct pleasures of intellectual engagement.
Sometimes my enthusiasm is embarrassing: I have a catalogue of classroom episodes in which I suddenly became one of the Three Stooges, including lecturing for 80 minutes with the back of my skirt tucked up into my tights. At the time, I thought I was killing it because everyone was laughing and smiling throughout the class. Another time, I accidentally kept class in session 15 minutes too long while explaining the impact of Cold War culture, emphasizing the subtext of B-movies featuring giant radiated insects. “Why didn’t you stop me? I’m so sorry!” I said. A student response: “You were so excited about it we didn’t have the heart to.” I felt awful, but this generous group of students all laughed. At our next meeting, I brought in a giant alarm clock and sat it prominently in the front of the room, asking a student to set it. Once we were all done making fun of my great geeky ardor for history, we moved on.
I’ve shared similar moments of silliness with hundreds of students in my 23 years of teaching. My willingness to crack the staid professorial façade often reaps the best reward: Every semester a handful of students seek me out to tell me that they learned more in my class than in any other and really understood today’s world better for having studied its past. And that’s the pay-off: I help them see the value in understanding the past, and they give me the freedom to be a dreamy-eyed optimist about education and a propagandist for the study of history. I may not have a lot of money, but I’ve been enriched in ways that are beyond quantification. I’ve also learned to always check to see if the back of my skirt is where it’s supposed to be.