Man of many hats hopes to inspire responsibility
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Lake Land composition and humanities instructor Tom Caldwell wore a number of hats before finally settling in a career that put his degree to good use. Now, Caldwell is two years from retirement and still teaching students lessons beyond the textbook.
“What I hope to do is make things interesting outside of the textbook, and to have people at ease and willing to discuss the topics in the classes,” Caldwell said.
Composition student Milah Chowning feels that his teaching style does just that.
“His teaching style grabs your attention, then he throws you into the material of what he wants you to understand,” Chowning said.
She said her favorite memory of Caldwell’s class was one of his attention-grabbing stories.
“I remember that everyone was quiet and then he sits down in his chair, kind of gives us this smile, and then he goes, ‘How do you guys feel about clubbing baby seals?'” Chowning said. “We were talking about persuasive essays. It pertained to the lesson about how media can portray things as really ridiculously, but it was just something really funny that came out of nowhere.”
Chowning said that this lesson will stick with her because of its association with clubbing baby seals.
“I will never forget it as long as I live. By association of ‘clubbing baby seals’–that’s crazy, let’s not write crazy persuasive essays. Let’s write something sensible,” Chowning said. “The way he said it made it stick.”
Beyond learning the material in class, Caldwell hopes to teach students “personal responsibility,” which he said gets overlooked often.
“The simple run-of-the-mill concepts: hard work pays off, integrity develops you into the person you want to be, you get back what you put in,” Caldwell said. “I’d hope that there’s a sense of that work ethic or that sense of being a participant in my own life.”
Having taught two generations of students, Caldwell said he has seen students changing over time.
“Students aren’t as long-term goal-oriented as they once were,” Caldwell said. “That’s nothing personal, just a sign of the times. New generations are raised differently.”
If Caldwell could give one piece of advice to his students, it would be to come to the first day of class.
“My personal biggest pet peeve is when students consider the first day of class ‘syllabus day’ and skip it,” Caldwell said. “I think that’s the worst thing a student can do. It just sets everybody back and causes misunderstandings later.”
One factor that sets Caldwell apart from other teachers is his time spent working outside of the classroom.
“I started as an adjunct at a community college in northern Illinois, then I worked in factories and was in the army,” Caldwell said. “I’d been in grad school, but every job I’d ever had was unrelated, so when an opportunity to do what I’d actually studied came up, I took it, in Poplar Bluff, Mo.”
Caldwell said that his time in the military especially shaped his interactions with others.
“One of the most important things to getting along with people is having interacted with people all over,” Caldwell said. “If you want to learn about diversity and teamwork, you need to be in the military for sure. If you want to learn about chain of command and knowing your place, the military is there.”
Working in a factory, on the other hand, encourages logical, practical thought.
“You do technical hands-on things and problem-solving. The real-life experiences are more important than just talking about it,” Caldwell said.
Caldwell’s affinity for real-life experiences works well with his career teaching college. He said one of his favorite things about teaching is the opportunity to learn and do more.
“You have lengthy breaks and a somewhat flexible schedule. That allows you to take a class, be involved in a community organization, travel… and if you take advantage of those opportunities where they are, it’s pretty great,” Caldwell said.
Initially, Caldwell wasn’t sure what to do with his time off in the summers, to which a colleague said “See you in August.” He took up climbing to pass the time.
“I was a mountain bum in the summers,” Caldwell said. “I’ve climbed 44 of the 50 high points.”
Lately, Caldwell’s free time has been dedicated to learning.
“On the side, I’ve completed the horticulture program here at Lake Land,” Caldwell said. “I’ve become a certified arborist to the international society of arborculture.”
Retirement won’t mean a break from the classroom just yet for Caldwell, as he plans on completing a forestry degree in Carbondale.
“We’ve bought property in Southern Illinois, and it’s loaded with pecan trees,” Caldwell said. “We’re going to have an apple and pecan orchard as my retirement ‘fun job.’”