Retiring English teacher Stephen Rayburn reflects on his 16 years at Uni

English teacher Stephen Rayburn has been at Uni for 16 years and is retiring this May. He shared his reflections about his time at Uni:

How he knew he wanted to be a teacher

“Wow. How did I know? I don’t know that I can answer that question. It’s what I wanted to do from first grade on. I loved school. I loved everything about it. I loved the routine. I loved learning new things. I loved the people, you know being around people. I don’t know that I can say where there was a moment. It’s just always sort of been what I wanted to do ….”

His journey to teaching

“Well, I decided to become a full-time teacher in first grade. So that’s all I ever really wanted to do. When my family moved up here to Illinois…I was the stay-at-home parent in our family and I didn’t have an Illinois certification.”

“I eventually started teaching part-time at Parkland and sort of got back into teaching that way. Cause that’s what I did, that’s what I wanted to do. I had actually applied to Uni three times before I got the job.”

How/Why he came to Uni

“The best job I had before I got to Uni was at a private all girls school in Memphis. Which was in a lot of ways like Uni. It wasn’t necessarily select admissions, it wasn’t necessarily based on academic ability. It was actually pretty much based on if your parents could afford the outrageous tuition. But that said, I had really motivated students. They weren’t all as bright as Uni students but they cared. It was a wonderful place to work and when I got here we had friends of my wife who knew about Uni and had connections (…).”

“So I looked into it and I applied, didn’t get a job. Then I found out there was an opening a few years later and I applied and didn’t get a job. Then I applied the third time and at least got an interview the third time but they didn’t hire me. They hired the other person. But that got me in as a full time substitute for Dr. Majerus when she was out on pregnancy leave and in the middle of that time one of the other teachers came to me and said I’m going to retire at the end of the year but I’m not announcing it. We’re hoping we can just move you in to that spot. So even though I didn’t technically get hired the third time that is how I got in.”

His teaching demonstration

“My teaching demonstration was in a freshman English class and they were doing Romeo and Juliet and I was told I didn’t have to teach anything about Shakespeare but that’s one of my passions so I had the shirt that said, “I love my Willie”. It had the picture of Shakespeare. So I wore the very nice Oxford cloth shirt and all of that but then as I started teaching I said — I don’t even remember what I said. I just remember unbuttoning my shirt and pulling my shirt open and showing them the Shakespeare shirt and going from there ….”

First impressions of Uni

“[Laughs] Well you know when you come to interview and you walk into a building and the lockers are open and there’s all this stuff on the floor and people are sitting in the halls and you’re first impression is what kind of crazy place is this…”

“The first day of teaching I was very nervous. That first year, I had decided, I had even told my wife, after 11 years at Parkland I had told her, ‘I gotta find something else to do. I just can’t keep doing this. I don’t enjoy it anymore. It’s just drudgery.’ And that first year was such incredible fun because I had these bright, motivated, challenging students.”

“I learned really early, sort of instinctively, not to try to BS a Uni student. So if I didn’t know the answer to something I said, ‘I don’t know. I’ll see what I can find out.’ Usually if I didn’t know the answer to something a student beat me to it. And this was before the days when we could just look it up on a cellphone. They were great students. They were engaged, they asked questions, they did whatever I asked them to do, they challenged me, they kept me on my toes.”

“I had to be honest, I had to be prepared, and I had so much fun that first year. That’s the class of 2005 and I’ve told parents of that class and those kids that they saved my life cause I’m not sure I would have stayed in teaching if I hadn’t got this job and they were so much fun to have.”

Changed most at Uni

“I think when I first got here the students were more relaxed and more creative. I don’t think the students were as focused on test scores and getting into the right school. Or getting into one of the elite schools. Not that that wasn’t there. That’s been there since I was at Uni but I don’t think it was as big a factor in the thinking of the students as it seems to be now. I worry that you guys are much more stressed and that you’re stressing yourself more than students did then. ….”

Where Uni could improve

“I wish we could move towards being more of a lab school than being such a college prep school. I feel like we’ve drifted into this real college prep mentality. I wish we could be more innovative, more creative.”

“Personally, I wish we’d do away with grades but I don’t know that that’ll ever happen. I would like to see the students having more fun, being more creative. And that may be us. That may be the faculty. We have to give you that allowance.”

Favorite Class

“… I have loved teaching Shakespeare. I’ve done it a lot of different ways over the last eleven years or so. I did enjoy teaching subbies. I enjoy teaching the freshman. American lit has never been my real passion. English lit has always been my passion. I’ve never gotten to teach it at Uni other than my Shakespeare class. You know there’s not a class I taught that I didn’t enjoy. If I don’t enjoy it you’re not going to enjoy it and I want you to enjoy it. So I gotta find the fun in there somewhere.”

Favorite Memories

“[Laughs] I remember my first year teaching here, I was teaching in 106S before it was renovated and there were these big cabinets up above the blackboard. Actually the blackboard was over these big cabinets. And one day in my 5th period class, they kept giggling and laughing and there was this student missing, Eric Barr, and then I noticed that every time they were giggling and laughing they were looking up above my head so I started talking again, facing the blackboard and the door of one of the cabinets opened and Barr had climbed in there and every time I would start talking he would open the door and peek out, thinking I wasn’t looking. The fun part of that was he was a short guy and it was a real deep drop off and he almost wasn’t able to get out. That was a fun memory. That was a crazy, crazy moment. See, I’m going to have way too many of them.”

“I remember also that first year the students were writing in class and a student said, ‘Can we listen to music’ and I said, ‘No’ and he said, ‘Why not?’ and I said, ‘Because we’ll never agree on what to listen to’ and he said, “Well what do you want to listen to’ and I said, ‘Classic’ and he said, ‘Well what?’ and so I just arbitrarily said, “A Beethoven piano concerto’ and he said, ‘Which one’s your favorite’ and I said, ‘The fifth’. He said, ‘I like the third’. I said, ‘Well it doesn’t matter because we don’t have them’ and he said, ‘I have all the piano concertos in my locker.’ This is back in the days before iTunes and everything. And low and behold he had a set of CDs with all the Beethoven piano concertos in his locker. What are the chances? Only at Uni would something like that happen. So I said, ‘Ok’ and we listened to piano concertos during class. I mean I thought I was safe, right? Just arbitrarily choosing something. That was a very fun moment.”

“A student in the class of 2007 in his will, in the yearbook, left me his second best bed. Which is what Shakespeare left his wife. That was a touching moment for me.”

“A lot of the special moments, to be honest, have come after people have graduated and have come back and said, ‘This really mattered’ or have come back and said, ‘I’m starting to do this, can you help me?’ or have sent little messages to say, like I got one just a couple of months ago from a former student who said, ‘I’m writing my master’s thesis. I still remember what you taught us in subbie English to get rid of as many to be verbs as possible. I just wanted you to know that I’m still using that.’ That means a lot. Just to have a former student get back in to touch to say, ‘I remember this.’ That makes it all worthwhile. Cause I mean let’s be honest. You’re not going to remember everything. What do you remember about The Scarlet Letter? Probably only that I really hate Arthur Dimmesdale but that’s ok if that’s all you remember, right. If you have a positive memory of The Scarlet Letter that may be the best I can hope for. So when students get back in touch and say, ‘I have a positive memory of this’ that’s special.”

What He’ll Miss the Most

Oh God. I’m going to miss the day to day classroom interaction with you guys. I mean I like my colleagues. I enjoy being with them. I particularly like my English department colleagues but what I will miss next fall when school starts is not being in a classroom with twenty crazy kids interacting over something, the writing, the literature, something. That’s what I’ll miss the most. I will NOT miss grading papers but I will miss the students.”

Advice for Future Teachers

“Be honest. Don’t try to BS a Uni student because it will not work.”

Retirement Plans

“My wife and I bought a house on Kentucky Lake. It’s a cut log cabin. It’s much smaller than what we live in now. So we’re going to sell our house here and move there. We have woods, we have a dock on the lake. So I will be reading. I will be, I hope, picking back up some stained glass…”

“We’ll be 18 miles from Murray State University and in Kentucky if you’re over 65 you can take college classes for free so eventually I would love to take some classes just for the fun of it.”

“And one of my college roommates is also retiring and his house is on Lake Barkley which is only 18 miles away from my house. So I’m really looking forward to spending time with him. He’s been one of my dearest friends since 1972 and so I’m looking forward to spending time with him.”

Final Comments

“I love Uni and I want to see it thrive. Even if I’m not here to be a part of it. And it’s been a incredible honor to work with you students. If I say anymore I’ll start crying.”