On Teaching

Mr. Chips or Signore Machiavelli?

By Ron McFarland

The first moment I stepped before a class as a sub at my former high school, I knew this was the place for me. I loved it. It felt right. During a long career, I never considered myself an exceptional teacher but always thought of myself as a good teacher. I believe if you don’t think of yourself as a good teacher, however you care to define that breed of pedagogue, you should get out of it. Dump your iron-fisted grip on tenure and your supposedly free summers and run. If you’re smart enough to get through college, irrespective of your major, you’re smart enough to find another kind of job. I suspect the worlds of business, technology, government, the military, and so on are filled with potentially very fine teachers, perhaps exceptional ones.

I taught at the college/university level for fifty-four years, the last forty-seven of which were at the University of Idaho before my retirement in 2018. It was a very different realm from that of my wife, retired after teaching high school English for twenty-odd years, or my sister, who has taught middle school subjects for forty-odd years. Most of my years on stage, I taught three courses per semester, meeting either three days a week for fifty minutes a shot or twice a week for an hour and fifteen minutes apiece. The college/university game can be nearly as easy as it sounds, or it can be a lot more challenging. Teachers either already know or will discover—depending on where they are in their careers—that their students are going to teach them a thing or two, and some of their lesser students may teach them the most.

But it’s probably best if I don’t continue with a fistful of ostensibly sage advice. My premise is that all careers, regarded objectively, are checkered. That is: “Marked by light and dark patches; diversified in color. Marked by great changes or shifts in fortune.”

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Ron McFarland

About Ron McFarland

Ron McFarland is professor emeritus at the University of Idaho, where he started teaching literature and creative writing in 1970. Pecan Grove Press published his fourth full-length book of poems, Subtle Thieves, in 2012. His critical books include Appropriating Hemingway (2015) and Edward J. Steptoe and the Indian Wars (2016).

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