Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, June 17, 2019

End of an era

Today is my last day as a classroom teacher.

We still have finals week yet to go, but for all intents and purposes, this is it.  The last day of class.  This year, when I say goodbye to my students, it's really goodbye.

I'm of two minds about retirement, which I suppose is only natural.

First, I've taught biology (and various other subjects) for 32 years, and I am seriously ready to do something different.  While I love my subject -- I still get ridiculously excited when I get to teach genetics and evolutionary biology -- there are parts of it that I will not miss.  Over three decades, and I still haven't figured out how to make The Parts of the Cell interesting.  And while I personally love biochemistry, it doesn't seem to be a Fan Favorite.

And that's putting it mildly.

I also am rather notorious in my school for my antipathy toward Staff Development.  I detest bureaucracy, and the increasing motion in New York -- and, I suspect, elsewhere in the United States -- toward micromanagement and a standardized-tests-├╝ber-alles approach to education absolutely infuriates me.  So I won't miss curriculum mapping and high-stakes exams and administrative b-b stackers who don't have the slightest clue what makes teaching vital and relevant and interesting.

But.  I still love the students.  The relationships I've formed over the years have meant a great deal to me, and the trust and interest and friendship the students have shown me are something I value more than I can put into words.  Also, that "Aha!" moment you see in kids' eyes when something finally makes sense, when suddenly some piece of the universe becomes clear to them -- there's nothing like that in the world.

The room where I spent a significant chunk of the last 27 years

I also have been privileged to work with a truly incomparable staff.  Our school district is very, very lucky, from the leadership on down to the rank-and-filers like myself.  In particular, the science department in our school is made up of incredibly talented, caring, and smart individuals, who have exactly the right attitudes toward education and have been, one and all, a delight to work with.  I'll truly miss the camaraderie.

The science department's yearbook photo this year.  We were supposed to include in the photo something that was important to us, and "make it memorable."  We nailed the latter part, at least.

There are also more specific, personal memories that I'll cherish forever.
  • The moment in my Critical Thinking class a few years ago, when I was talking about how (or if) we can establish knowledge in the absence of hard evidence.  I said, "I want you right now, with what you have right here, to prove to me that pandas exist!"  And a student silently reached into her backpack... and pulled out a stuffed panda.  After we stopped laughing, I said, "You win this round."  At the end of the semester, she gave me the panda, which still sits on my desk.
  • Superintendent's Conference Days.  This may come as a surprise, given my general hatred of staff development as described above -- but I always know that on conference days, the physics teacher and I get fried chicken from the village grocery store for lunch, and that chicken is damn tasty.
  • My first day of teaching in Trumansburg High School, when I was teaching in three different classrooms, and second period accidentally went to the wrong one.  I started calling roll, and (of course) no one answered.  After three tries of getting someone, anyone, to answer "Here," one of the students said, in a small voice, "I think the kids you're looking for are next door."  Thereby establishing myself as slightly daffy, a reputation that still haunts me for some reason.
  • The student who asked me, in complete seriousness, if Friday the 13th ever fell on a Sunday.
  • The incredibly talented artist who, as part of a senior project focused on human faces, did an amazing portrait of me, which I still cherish.
  • Finding out that despite my having moved here 27 years ago knowing no one, I've met two students who are distant cousins of mine.
  • All the times students have asked me questions that made me step back and say, "Whoa.  I've never thought about that" -- resulting in my learning something along with them.
So all in all, it's been a good run, and retirement was a really hard decision to make.  But it's the right one at the right time.  I've got a lot of things I want to do -- writing, mostly, although I'm sure that a large part of my retirement will be occupied with "let dogs in, let dogs out, let dogs in, let dogs out" -- and I'm content with turning over the reins to a new teacher.  (Really new, in my case.  I know the person who was hired to replace me, and she's a first-year teacher, right out of the starting gate -- and is incredibly talented, dedicated, enthusiastic, and smart.  I have to admit to feeling better about leaving given that I know the students are in good hands.)

So this is it.  In a few hours, the last bell will ring on my teaching career, and that'll be that.  I'm gonna try not to cry, but we'll see how long that determination holds.


This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a little on the dark side; Jared Diamond's riveting book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.  Starting with societies that sowed the seeds of their own destruction -- such as the Easter Islanders, whose denuding of the landscape led to island-wide ecological collapse -- he focuses the lens on the United States and western Europe, whose rampant resource use, apparent disregard for curbing pollution, and choice of short-term expediency over long-term wisdom seem to be pushing us in the direction of disaster.

It's not a cheerful book, but it's a very necessary one, and is even more pertinent now than when it was written in 2005.  Diamond highlights the problems we face, and warns of that threshold we're approaching toward catastrophe -- a threshold that is so subtle that we may well not notice it until it's too late to reverse course.

[If you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]


  1. It IS an end of an era. You, Larry, Chris, the dominoes are falling! And THANK YOU for inspiring CJP to study science in college. Even though he is now a working musician/sound recording engineer, it was your inspiration that led him through McGill. I hope you feel satisfied in the knowledge that you have been an excellent, memorable, and beloved teacher. Again, THANK YOU!

  2. Trumansburg High won't be the same without you, I am sure. I didn't officially have you as a teacher, but you helped out with enough of the labs and classes that I still learned a lot from you. It also was fun to hang out with you during random free times or when I was on trips that you chaperoned. During those time you taught more then just biology. There have been many a teenager who learned about themselves and life in general from you during moments such as those. I was one of them, though now that 2 decades have passed since I graduated, I can't place a finger on anything specific. However, when I think back to my high school days, you are always among the top of the list of teachers I admired, respected and remember with fondness. Thank you for your years of service in teaching a generation of students!!!! Enjoy your retirement!! ~Alan Swick Class of '99

  3. I don't know how to think of my high school years without you, or how the school will be with you gone. I can't begin to thank you enough for everything you taught me, and the memories I walked away with. I wish you the best in whatever is yet to come.
    You were also the MOST understanding Latin teacher of all time. Thankful for you always I will be.
    - Ashley (Holden) Whitmore

  4. Dear Gordon,
    I cannot believe that you are retiring
    It seems only a few years ago when you would come into my classroom to discuss the supernatural, out of body experiences, ESP, etc! Over the last few years, I have come to realize that I am a psychic empath. I can "feel" people's emotions. I have had only one
    transentient experience. It happened when I read the emotions of a very dear close friend without his knowing. When that happens, the spirit of the reader and the spirit of the one being read join and the reader feels all the other persons emotions! It felt as though I was in a trance, but it was amazing! I felt that person's presence for the rest of the day, all through the night, and for several days afterward. Whenever that person crosses my mind, I still feel his presence. I didn't understand what happened, so I researched it. You are probably the only one who will not think I'm a crazy old woman. Perhaps you can turn my experience into an idea for a new book. But read about psychic empaths. I hope you enjoy your retirement. Personally, I don't plan to retire. I still work two part-time jobs and tutor one gifted student (who will not become a writer; wants to be a doctor or engineer) Lots of Love,