Charlie Mitchell: Still passionate about teaching after three decades

It’s been just over three decades since Dr. Charlie Mitchell started teaching at Elmira College. It’s a job he has been dedicated to for most of his professional life. And even as student personalities and the landscape of higher education have changed, his enthusiasm for teaching has not.

“If I’m not enthusiastic about the material I’m teaching, or I can’t at least fake it, I’m not doing the right thing,” Mitchell said. “I need to show that this is important and interesting to me so that at least some of the students might be infected by that – in a good way.”

From a young age, Mitchell has had a passion for education. He was inspired by his father, an avid reader who was curious and often learned about different topics. Mitchell said his father never attended college but probably would have loved to if he had the opportunity.

“I was surrounded by books as a kid,” Mitchell recalled, “and the enthusiasm I picked up from him became my world.”

Starting his undergraduate studies, first at the University of Chicago and then transferring to Williams College in Massachusetts for his sophomore year, Mitchell explored several different majors due to his varying interests. However, he ended up settling on Sociology. That decision, he said, was because most of the Sociology classes took place in the afternoon and he struggled with waking up early enough to be in a classroom at 8:00 a.m.

With a laugh, Mitchell added, “I now teach 8:00 a.m. classes, so it’s kind of payback.”

To help pay his way through college, Mitchell held a work-study job at the campus pub. For a year after graduation, he continued to bartend at The Log, a town bar that was run by the college’s food services and also served as its Alumni House. His first teaching opportunity, a high school English teaching job, drew him out to a private school in Hawaii. Seeking additional teaching opportunities, Mitchell came back stateside to pursue his master’s degree through Claremont Graduate University in southern California. His initial intention was to go back and teach at the high school level, but a “very influential advisor” encouraged him to pursue his PhD, and he began considering college teaching jobs as well.

Near the conclusion of his PhD work, Mitchell received the offer to teach at Elmira College.

“I got lucky, very lucky, to get this job,” he said.

Having been a teacher or bartender his entire working life, Mitchell admitted with a laugh that the two fields are “oddly similar.” These similarities range from being a good listener and letting people express themselves to interacting respectfully and attentively, keeping people entertained, and finding the right balance between giving students what they want and paying attention to what is good for them.

Of course, the lessons from bartending only make up some of Mitchell’s teaching style. He feels fortunate to have had some very influential teachers along his own educational journey to draw inspiration from.

“I picked up things that my teachers did that I find myself unconsciously applying in the classroom, including writing little quirky things on my students’ papers. In college and graduate school, I think some of my best teachers blended professional, but also personal connections and interactions,” Mitchell said. “They weren’t just stand-offish people who were standing up there and lecturing, and then went off to the faculty lounge with their pipes and patched elbows. They were human beings and interested in us.”

Jokingly, he added, “At least I thought they were interested in me. They might have been faking it.”

As staffing has changed through the years, Mitchell has seen his role expand to teaching European history courses, including the French Revolution, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment. It’s been a change he has welcomed wholeheartedly.

“The opportunity to grow and make connections between different historical periods and not be pigeonholed as just the ‘American guy’ has been very valuable and very meaningful to me,” he said.

Probably the most rewarding and most meaningful part of the job for Mitchell is hearing the positive impact he has had on a student’s education and overall experience at EC. In fact, he keeps a manilla folder in his office with notes and other mementos.

“It’s still really warming and emotional for me at reunions to have various students say, ‘I’m so happy to see you. You were important,” he shared.

“Even after 31 years – and there’s an awful lot of cynicism and despair and stress about the state of education and higher education – I can still convince myself for the better part of the day, day after day after day, that it actually matters and it’s worthwhile. And looking out to a room full of students who are very different than they were 10, 15, 20 years ago, I can still say, ‘Yep, it was worth getting out of bed this morning and actually putting in some effort for you guys.’ I think my rule is when I stop feeling that, it’s time to go back to bartending.”

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