The Solitude and the Camaraderie of Teaching

By Robert Alan Simpkins

During my now more than two decades as a college instructor, I have often felt that teaching can be a surprisingly lonely profession, considering how much of our work involves interacting with others.  Part of that feeling may derive from the nature of the interaction, and part of it may derive from the reality of how our time is actually spent, but some experiences in the past couple of years have changed aspects of those long-standing feelings for me.  To explain, let me share in more detail what I mean about these experiences.

As a former adjunct instructor for a dozen years, that feeling of loneliness was sometimes due to being a ‘freeway flyer’ and crisscrossing Santa Clara County to my different institutions, unable to have the luxury of time among colleagues at any one place.  In the classroom, it was sometimes due to the imbalance in the relationship of instructor and student, in which interaction is so unlike that of peers, friends, or family members, and no matter what teaching style one employs – friendly or distant – the fact is that we hold significant power over their education and future, and as such are authority figures to our students in a way that impacts our interaction with them regardless of the style of interaction one employs. 

As a tenured professor over the past decade at Porterville College, I have felt that even with my most familiar and trusted colleagues, our shared time in meetings is not truly social because there is work to be done, and an awareness that this time is taking us away from time spent working on our classes and other responsibilities.  And then there is the unfortunate fact that our classes themselves – the thing that is the primary expectation for work under our contract – requires significant labor outside of the classroom time in the form of preparation, research, grading, and – increasingly – knowledge of instructional technology and pedagogy.  This work may occur at all hours of the day, and any day of the week, and many of us in our dedication spend far more hours doing the work than perhaps makes economic sense – yet we do it to be sure it is being done well and to meet all of our professional expectations.  This devotion may keep us from other forms of social life, including our family and friends, our hobbies, and other forms of personal fulfillment.  And for many of us, it continues during the ‘breaks’ between sessions as well, when that investment in anything new is most likely to occur, as well as final grading after classes end and pre-semester preparations before the new semester starts.  And in those long and quiet hours over the past two decades, I also often wondered if all this work hindered or helped my own ability to make myself better at the work I was trying to do.

Recently, I watched The Beatles docuseries Get Back, and in being provided an opportunity to ‘sit’ in the studio with the Beatles as they rehearsed songs for what would be their final public performance in January of 1969, I saw things in their interactions that reminded me of some of my own experiences as a teacher.  I saw George Harrison trying to find his place in rehearsals while John and Paul played off each other, with George standing to the side looking sad, lonely, and uncertain of his future – at one point quietly quitting the band, before reluctantly returning.  I saw Paul trying to encourage them all to be more ambitious, and feeling like the others did not share his motivation.  I saw Ringo show up to daily rehearsal – sometime the first to arrive, sometimes the only one to arrive – ready to do the work even while the others were frustrated or distracted.  I saw John trying his best to keep the mood light, and ready to play any song and support any one of them.  And I saw how they all seemed to feel happier, and more able to play together with enthusiasm, when their old friend from their Hamburg days, Billy Preston, stopped by and joined in the sessions, bringing a new sound to the compositions, and a new energy to the room. 

Like a band that has spent years together, faculty in an institution may work side-by-side for years – sometimes harmoniously, sometimes acrimoniously.  Some faculty, like myself, have a ‘one faculty program’ in the sense of there being only a single full-time faculty member – although supported by outstanding adjunct instructors – but work within a larger unit (in this case, an academic division) collaboratively with full-time faculty in other disciplines.  Other faculty work within the same discipline alongside several other colleagues, sometimes collaboratively and sometimes independently.  These differences impact decision-making and what kinds of social interactions we have, yet at some point we have to work with others, collaborate and support each other’s work.  But we can develop entrenched habits that prevent us and our colleagues from growing, which may be to the detriment of the individual, the institution, and ultimately, the students we are charged with educating.

Several times in Get Back, George arrives to the studio to share a song he had been working on, and when we hear it, we as the audience looking back fifty years have a perspective on it that they in the moment it is happening do not.  We know, for example, that one of those unfinished songs will become ‘Something’ and perhaps one of the finest pop songs of all time, but at that moment George is stuck on that first verse and his chorus is initially different, even if the melody is the same.  He is growing as an artist before our eyes in that footage, but to John and George, he is still the youngest of the group, who has lived his adolescence in their shadow.  George later notes with some frustration that now he has so many songs he could release his own album – and soon after would, in the majestic form of All Things Must Pass.  But at the moment we see him in this footage, he is just struggling to be recognized and feel like a peer and equal to his bandmates, John and Paul.

I understood that feeling in my past, wanting to do more, to show what I was capable of, and waiting for the opportunity.  I was fortunate when then-President of Porterville College, Rosa Carlson, gave me that opportunity.  I am fortunate now for the opportunities I have been given by my colleagues as Academic Senate President and Guided Pathways faculty lead, and the work I am currently doing with our District Office, our Chancellor, and with the Office of Educational Services.  In this work, I am able to utilize my years of experience in higher education in the hope of investing in my college and my district to produce institutional change to benefit our students.  I am grateful for these opportunities, but watching George Harrison in the Get Back sessions, I found myself thinking – ‘Who are the ‘Georges’ around me right now?  What do we need to do to ensure our bandmates are heard, and given those opportunities to participate and grow?’  At some point, I will not be in these current roles, but unlike a band that can simply break up and its members go their separate ways, our institution must continue and part of our duty is to ensure that we plan for those times when our jobs will be performed by others.

I got my first opportunity to join a ‘band’ of sorts within my college at the time that we began developing our Elementary Teacher Education AA-T degree.  I was asked by then-Vice President of Instruction Sam Aunai to develop the curriculum for the new degree, including some new courses, and help move it through the processes needed for degree approval.  I already had experience in this area, having served as the Social Science division’s Curriculum Committee representative for four years at that point, and also having developed my own program’s Anthropology AA-T degree.  However, what was new to me was joining a team associated with the degree that also included a counselor (Ana Ceballos), an educational advisor (Jackie Escareno), our Institutional Research Director (Mike Carley) an IR Analyst (DJ Vanderwerff), our then-Director of Equity and Education Services (Kimanthi Warren), and our work was overseen by our Vice-President of Student Services (Primavera Arvizu). 

Our new ‘Education Careers Task Force’ was brought together to help launch and promote the degree, and I quickly learned the value of what the other team members brought to the discussion – and how much I did not know.  Our counselor and education advisor knew much more than I did about the student perspective for a program, including issues about scheduling the classes and ensuring students were taking the actions while enrolled in classes that would prepare them for what they would need to be doing after they left our institution.  Our IR members helped us collect that data to identify prospective majors and adjust our estimates for the program’s growth that our Director of Equity and Education Services needed for the Title V grant reporting.  We organized informational meetings for students to raise awareness of the new program and answer questions.  And we had to hire faculty for a program that did not yet exist – and soon those educators (Michelle Pengilly, Jacqueline Pennell-Meredith) would join the team as well.  And like any group, over time its composition would change.  Our Vice-President of Instruction and Director of Equity and Education Services departed from the college for other positions.  I handed off my role to my division’s new Chair, Karen Bishop.  But the group’s work continued and new members helped the continuing members ensure the program’s success.  And the lessons I learned from the experienced re-shaped the way I thought about my work, and the benefits of working collaboratively with campus colleagues across all areas.  One current endeavor, which I developed with my Guided Pathways co-lead Primavera Arvizu, we called the Guided Pathways Academy and it grew out of forging those connections and linking faculty to partners in each area of the campus to develop strategies for program management that are holistic, and student-centered.  We recently also restructured our Guided Pathways committee to reflect these connections across campus, including a place for a stronger student voice.  These are efforts to bring a new mindset to the college, and an effort to increase our support for each other and show the value of working together.  Those pivotal experiences with the Education Careers team made me feel like I wasn’t doing my work alone.

Even in the past two years, under circumstances of isolation, stress, and uncertainty, I found solace in working closely with, being inspired by, and learning from my colleagues.  I want to ensure that we don’t lose the value from or forget the positive lessons that came out of this difficult time.  I hope no one will quit the band, no one’s talent will go unheard, and our new bandmates are prepared, heard, and supported.  This way when it comes time for each of us to depart the institution, we know that those who follow us are ready to lead, and that even in that sometimes lonely work of teaching, we find comfort in knowing that we are part of a group that is dedicated to the common work of educating our students, learning from and being inspired by each other, and that we have used our shared experiences to build a something that will survive and be remembered for the work we did here.

Robert Alan Simpkins has been a Professor of Anthropology at Porterville College since 2012, where he also is currently the Academic Senate President and faculty lead for Guided Pathways.  He previously served two terms as the Social Science Division Chair, and organized PC’s CHAP (Cultural and Historical Awareness Program) series for five years.  Prior to coming to PC, he was an adjunct at De Anza College and at San Jose State University.  He has an MA and a PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and BA from San Jose State University.  As an Archaeologist, he is interested in the relationship between roads, architecture, cultural landscapes, and socio-political organization.  His particular focus has been the Golconda kingdom in the Indian Deccan region, which was the subject of his doctoral dissertation and on which he has presented his research internationally and published extensively, most recently in the article “Inferring Road Networks and Socio-Political Change from Elite Monuments of the Golconda Kingdom” in South Asian Studies in 2020.  Although a native of the Bay Area, he enjoys the farms and orchards of the central valley and the proximity to the mountains, and going on drives and exploring the region with his family.  He has a weakness for books, toys, classic movies and animation, art, stories, and anything that he finds amusing. 

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