Bright eyes and a wide smile have been gracing classrooms since 1970 and UNCG for the past 26 years. In the past few years, MHRA 3326, which is tucked into a sunlit corner overflowing with bookshelves, knickknacks and post cards taped to any available space, has been a second home to Hephzibah Roskelly.
Dr. Hephzibah Roskelly, or Hepsie as she is called by both students and staff, is finishing up her last semester and final chapter at UNCG this year. She will be retiring after almost three decades of teaching courses at the graduate and undergraduate level in writing, literature and theory at UNCG.
“I started teaching high school in Kentucky when I was 21,” she said as she reminisced on her first year of teaching. “Some of the students were almost as old as I was. It was scary, but I knew I loved it from the start.”
Dr. Roskelly studied English and drama during her undergraduate years at Murray State University and received both her master’s and doctoral degrees from The University of Louisville.
Teaching hadn’t always been the end goal or plan for Roskelly, as theater was originally one of her main focuses.
“If I had been a braver person, or maybe if it were now,” Dr. Roskelly mused, “rather than then, I would have gone to New York. I would never have made anything of it, just for the experience, but I didn’t do that.”
Shortly after getting her teaching certificate, she taught at a high school in Louisville. At the end of the semester, a librarian whose office was across the hall from her classroom pulled her over one afternoon and told her, “I’ve heard a lot of people teach, and when I hear you teach your class, I just want to tell you that you’ve got it.” At that moment, Dr. Roskelly began thinking that [teaching] was her calling.
In the classroom today, Dr. Roskelly is a character like no other – she is a multitude of funny voices, silly stances and an exuberant personality that allows the entire classroom to feel comfortable and welcome in their environment.
When she first began teaching though, it was a completely different story. As a young teacher she tried to be strict and run a no-nonsense classroom. However, one day she got so excited about a point she was talking about that her chalk flew out the window.
“My students, who until then had been pretty uncommunicative, let out such a hoot. We were collaborators from that moment on. I realized early in my teaching career that I had to be myself in the classroom for this to work,” Dr. Roskelly explained. “I had to learn to own my excitement about ideas and watching people learn to like talking about ideas.” She pointed out that finding her teaching style was a process that took a lot of practice and figuring out what works helped her own up to her unique method of teaching.
It might have something to do with her acting training or being on stage, but Dr. Roskelly primarily gains her energy from watching what happens when a professor believes in their students and gives them encouragement and watching how they react and bring life to a classroom.
“I’m a real believer that students do well when you know, as their teacher, you believe that they have the capacity to imagine well, think well and write well,” Dr. Roskelly said. “You have to capture the audience’s attention. Everybody is an actor, with whatever we do, they have a role and I want them to be in it with me.”
One of Roskelly’s greatest joys of teaching comes from watching what happens when a student gets it, sees the point of the story, makes a great sentence or figures out a problem.
“All of a sudden, learning makes sense. I’ve learned so much about students and the importance of curiosity, especially how important trust is. Knowing that has had a big impact on me inside and outside of the classroom,” Dr. Roskelly explained.
For Dr. Roskelly, the act of teaching has never gotten old or boring. “Teaching is so compelling to me,” she said. “You always get to start over. In some ways, it’s exactly like being a student. At the end of the semester, you decide what works and what doesn’t. Then you can recreate yourself and better yourself in a constant way.”
Even though she will no longer be teaching professionally, she hopes to find something that allows her to grow the way teaching has insisted she do.
“I hope this makes sense,” she prefaced before giving her explanation on how she views teaching in the classroom. “I think teaching a class is like a circle. Not a line from beginning to end but a nucleus that just keeps growing bigger and rounder as long as you are with the group. And so I want to get the nucleus – a lot of ideas and theories and contradictions all out there at once and the spend time playing with them and practicing them and reshaping them. But have never really figured out how to.”
Her own personal growth is and has always been inextricably tied to teaching. “I‘ve learned to listen better at school because I learned to listen to my own children; I learned to be more organized at home, sort of,” she chuckled, ”because I needed to organize my life at school. I’ve been so lucky to have a job that helped me be a better person.”
Now that she is retiring, she plans to spend time with her granddaughter, take time with her writings and still find ways to teach once in a while. “My husband says I’ll always be teaching somebody something! I hope that’s true,” she said. “But I’m also going to learn. I want to take fiddle lessons and relearn French.”
Roskelly is infinitely thankful for all the years she’s had in this profession and all the ways they have allowed her to grow and learn as a person and through others.
“My students have always helped me change and grow and rethink. I have been so fortunate to have a job that I have loved and that I’ve been surrounded by curious, smart, funny and wonderful people – students and colleagues – who’ve made my life so much richer,” she concluded.