Over the weekend, I went to a very inspiring celebration of life for clinical associate professor, Dr. Diane Calleson, who passed away a few weeks ago after an eight-year battle with cancer. The event was at a beautiful, historic church in Hillsborough, N.C., on a gorgeous Carolina-blue day. It was the kind of day Diane would have savored. People, starting with Jerry Calleson, Diane’s husband of many years, told the most wonderful, sometimes reverential and inspiring and often very funny stories about her and how she supported the people around her—family, friends, students, people in community groups—and the ways she stayed in touch with everyone from elementary school friends to students who took her class a number of years ago and, of course, family members. As busy as we all are, it’s so easy to drop the ball on friendships. The stories people told of Diane said that she showed up and stuck by people. I admire that.
What the students said and why it matters
No one in the church could have been unmoved by a group of former students who were sitting in the choir loft. After most people had spoken, one of them stood up and explained they were former students—who several years ago (or more), as undergrads, had taken a class Diane and Dr. Anthony Viera taught. Though they were in tears and clearly overcome with sadness, they talked about how much Diane meant to them, how she supported them, took them for tea and really listened to them in a way no one else in the University had done, wrote letters of reference for them and checked in to see how they were doing well after the class had ended. By doing all this, she engaged, empowered and touched them in ways all of us who are teachers should want to do. There are all sorts of metrics by which to evaluate teaching, but in the end, the presence of these former students was one of the most powerful metrics in documenting Diane Calleson’s impact as a teacher. She not only taught the curriculum well; she also allowed her life to become infused with the lives of her students. Person after person used the word passionate to describe how Diane felt about teaching.
In academia, we often get caught up in issues having to do with the rewards of achievement – such as whether a person is tenure-track, and what rank they have attained. We talk far too little about how our faculty members affect the lives of their students. In the future, I will be a bit more thoughtful in how I think about the people who teach. They are some of the most important people in the university. Barbara