The teacher files: Sociology instructor keeps it real
It’s about second chances. Not only his, but the second chances of the students he teaches. Sociology instructor Erich Pfeifer has been at Clackamas Community College about eight years now. Pfeifer also teaches a pre-fall college success class for incoming athletes, before fall term starts.
The Clackamas Print: How did you get to CCC?
Erich Pfeifer: Let’s see. I have been in the Army. I worked at a diversionary program for kids who have been arrested for different things, so I was a lead counselor there for a number of years. I worked on a program, in Portland, trying to help young kids make a positive connection with education. I went to PCC [Portland Community College] and I felt like they didn’t respect the students that they were working with, at least the people that I was around. I did a consulting job out here. I met people at Clackamas and I found that there were some good people out here, so that’s what brought me to Clackamas. I grew up in southern California and I didn’t like school, didn’t have a good relationship with school growing up. So I had to turn things around for myself and figure out how to be a good student. Having gone through all that, I had some good experiences as a student at the community college, so I like the community college and what it makes available to people. I decided to come back to the community college because I wanted to try to help other people who are trying to do what I was trying to do, when I was trying to get an education.
TCP: What do you hope to accomplish when you teach your students?
Pfeifer: I want to help people succeed in college so that they can earn a degree and be able to use that degree in the real world to make their lives better. I hope to encourage people to think for themselves and try to dismantle some of the misunderstanding that we have in our society that result in people leading lives that are not authentic and real to who they want to be and what they want to do. I want to help people question things, figure out answers for themselves, ask questions about the society and how we share things with each other, but ultimately I want to help people learn how to be successful in college so that they can get a degree, in a credential society, that requires a degree to get access to a certain standard of living and quality of life. I want them to not only learn to succeed in college but learn how to use that degree in the real world to make their life better.
TCP: What life experiences do you use to teach your classes?
Pfeifer: Everything I’ve been through, my whole life comes into how I teach. Some of the most important life experiences are that I didn’t grow up in the easiest way, so I’ve been a lot of things as a person myself, so I have a lot of respect of anybody who’s struggling with things in their life and trying to turn their life around with an education. The most important experience I’ve ever had in my life that prepared me was working in Portland at a place called Albina Head Start, where I worked for five years. In that period of time, I was pretty much the only white person everywhere I went. In my job, I learned the most important lessons in my life about how to treat other people, see other people, how to get past the stereotypes we have in our society and see who people really are on the inside and reach across the things that divide us to see that we’re all the same.
TCP: How do you relate to your students? You talk about not liking school very much. How does that help you connect with your students?
Pfeifer: I would say that I would hope that people would say that if they work with me, they know I’m real. They know that I live in the real world and I come from the real world. After I developed who I really was, outside of academics and that people can feel that and I think that, fundamentally, I got a second chance in going to the community college to restart my academic life and I think people can feel that I really want to make that available to them … a valedictorian to anyone, but the people I tend to gravitate to the most are the people that are trying for a second chance in their life and trying to start over in school. I think that knowing that I’ve been though that too can put us closer, you know, and make it easier for them to listen to someone who’s been through what they’re trying to do.
TCP: What advice do you give students to help them succeed?
Pfeifer: Well, I started my own college success class so I put together a five-part plan: motivation, organization, planning, self-discipline and standards, to look at who you want to be as a student. And I really advocate that anybody who wants to succeed in school take it one term at a time, one week at a time, [and] one day at a time. Be organized. Put a weekly plan together. Start each week fresh, end each week fresh. There’s 11 weeks in each term, so run 11 laps each term. Seven good days make a good week. 11 good weeks make a good term. Three good terms make a good year. Two good years make an AA degree. So I try to advocate for that but motivation is important … If we just keep telling people to do their homework, who’ve heard that all their life, it doesn’t tend to work. You have to help people figure out why should they do their homework? What can it do for them? Once they find their motivation, then being organized really helps anybody. How are you going organize the work it takes to be successful? What degree do you need to get to get [where] you want? Self-discipline after that. You can put a good plan together but if you don’t follow it, it won’t work. So are you going to make yourself follow that plan? The last thing we talk about is standards. I advocate that if you set the goal to pass every class you take so you don’t waste any time and you don’t waste any money but if you want to get good grades after that or learn as much as you can after that, that’s up to you too.
TCP: Why do you like helping student athletes?
Pfeifer: Because I was an athlete and I like athlete culture. I like a lot of the lessons that can be learned in athletics. I also really am opposed to the dumb jock stereotype. The lessons that people learn in athletics are lessons that you really can’t learn in academics. They teach you a lot of beautiful, tough life lessons that in combination with an academic development can make you a full well-rounded person. So I love academic culture … I fit a lot of those stereotypes when I was young so I try to take people who don’t like school but love sports and try to help them figure out how to at least be successful in the classroom so that they can continue their athletic career.
TCP: What do you like to do outside of teaching?
Pfeifer: Think and learn. Be out in the world. I like experiencing life. I like being with real people in the real world. My favorite things generally tend to be where I go somewhere and don’t know what’s going to happen and just let the situation evolve and see where it’s going to go.
This interview has been edited for clarity and space.