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A bittersweet farewell to one of Pierce’s most beloved professors
June 9, 2018
John Simpson has led an eventful career. Now it’s time to say good-bye
John Simpson’s life has been full and eventful: he has been embedded in Afghanistan and Iraq both as a soldier and as a photojournalist, he serves on Lakewood’s city council, he owns a small coffee shop named Primo Espresso. And for twenty-eight years, he has taught at Pierce College.
Initially, Simpson didn’t study history to become a teacher or professor. He wanted to write novels, and didn’t foresee his notion for writing turning into a career in journalism either. “I earned a degree in history because I was good at it, I always like to say I did what came easily to me. When I got involved in education, it was because, quite frankly, I needed a job. It wasn’t because of any idealistic notion that I was going to be the next great teacher. I came to Pierce College in 1989 because I was looking for work, and I wound up teaching in what was then the alternative learning center, and I graded reading tests.”
For Simpson, the early teaching job was little more than a way to make ends meet while earning his master’s degree. After he had gotten that degree, he asked to teach history part-time on the McChord Air Force Base campus.
“I found that I liked it and that I was halfway decent at it. And from that point on, it built on itself. And I have to say it was probably one of the most fortuitous series of events in my life that have led me to say that I couldn’t have planned it better if I tried. Especially with students, and the lessons I’ve taught and learned from students over the years, I couldn’t have planned it better.”
Simpson has been known perhaps most for his unique teaching style and his not-so-subtle character. He is not, nor has he ever, been afraid to speak his mind or the truth, be it to school students, college administration, or to the newspaper he ended up working for in his younger days.
“I used to look at pictures in the newspaper, and I would tell myself I could do a better job. And I thought, well, if you think you can do a better job why don’t you do a better job, so I spent some time reading about photojournalism and I literally taught myself how to use cameras and how to develop film and all of that. And one day I walked into the office of The Ranger [a military newspaper that has covered Joint Base Lewis-McChord since 1951] and I asked the editor for a job. He said ‘okay,’ he gave me an assignment to go out and photograph this event, told me he’d pay me ten dollars for the photo, and I went out to the event. And he must’ve liked it, because then I got another assignment. And with the photography, for several years, I was asked to write little pieces. I wrote food reviews, automotive reviews, not news per se, but more in the sense of advertising.”
From this, Simpsons began to get a sense of how the business of journalism worked, and began to study what good articles had and employ that study. He found that he liked it, and began covering more stories, and his career grew from there: writing, photographing, and editing his own stories. Simpson has since won an Emmy for his journalistic work while embedded in the Middle East.
These dual careers in history and journalism interacted with each other. Simpson said that he liked to approach news stories from a historical perspective, explaining the background of events, which he finds adds more color and makes them more interesting to read. In his words: “Journalism is history’s first draft.”
Simpsons’ position as a standout in Pierce’s Social Science Division began with the passing of history professor Roland Ryce, the position of which he was asked to fill. This is when Simpson began to formulate his unique teaching style. He teaches history as just that: a story. No PowerPoint presentations, no Canvas, no heavy-handed chapter-by-chapter structure.
“The more I taught, the more I began to see and hear things that I thought made history come alive to students. In a word, it’s very qualitative-oriented. It’s the telling of the stories, the bringing of the color to the lectures. It’s the facts, it’s the people, it’s the ideas… it’s done in a way that I think is memorable. And every bit of empirical data I have points out that what I do works with the classes that I teach.”
Expanding on why he thinks this style of teaching works, Simpson said: “I think there is an innate human desire to hear a good story. And I think what I find frustrating is that we in education tend to what to quantify everything. And I resist that. I don’t use Canvas. I won’t use Canvas. I won’t use PowerPoint. I think at that point it becomes boring, it becomes predictable, it becomes staid and stale. I think that to make history come alive and to impart some of the lessons of history, you tell a story, you make an impact. And I believe that although the student may not catch everything I say in the lectures; twenty-five years from now, they’re going to hear something, read something, see something and they’re going to say: I remember when that guy – they’ll forget my name – said that in a history class. That’s what I think teaching to the future is all about. Not some matrix that’s required by some outside agency that we have to fill in.”
John Simpson calls himself an outlier, and he believes that outliers should be welcomed on a college campus. However, he doesn’t believe that they are. Simpson has been an ardent critic of school administrations and some of the programs that educators are forced to adopt to meet the standards of those administrations.
“I listen to my students, rather than listen to the people who have never taught a day in their lives in the classroom. I listen to my customers. I listen to the people who have walked into my classrooms, I listen to the people who have come back three, four, five, ten, fifteen years later and have said ‘you know Mr. Simpson, that kaleidoscope of history lecture you give, I used that in my graduate work.’ By listening to students, and listening to former students, it has validated to me the importance of telling a good story. You’re getting facts, ideas, and lessons across, but you’re doing it in a way that they will remember for the rest of their lives.
He went on to list examples of students and teachers that have approved of his way of teaching. “I have an email from a guy, I forget how long ago, saying that ‘I remember you saying in class, if you want to make a change in history, take a look at the guy in the mirror.’ He quoted that back to me in an email. I hear from the registrar’s office how often students are trying to get in my class. To me, that is a measure of the effectiveness, not just of John Simpson, but of teaching history other than by some boring PowerPoint or some politically correct format that we’re supposed to follow. I won’t do that. I’m gonna call it like it is, I’m gonna tell history like it is. The good, the bad, the ugly. We talk about the big people, the little people, we talk about men, women, races, religions. We do what we’re constantly lecture by the administration what we’re supposed to be doing. Well I’ve got news for them: I’ve been doing this for over twenty-five years. Where the hell have they been?”
This leads directly to another fact about Simpson: he is honest. Brutally so. His send off is not necessarily all sappy smiles, fond farewells, and fancy retirement watches. As written above, he is a critic not only of country-wide education policies, but also those of Pierce College as an individual administration. Simpson admits that some of the policies adopted by the college in recent years is a large part of the reason that he is retiring.
“I’m simply tired of hearing how we’re not doing our job. And I figure, at that point, it’s time move on. It seems to me, all we do around here is reinvent the wheel. I think the vast majority of faculty here are good, hard-working people who do truly believe in themselves and their subject matter. A lot of us are sick and tired of being told how to do our job by people who don’t spend that much time in the classroom.”
However, the decision was not easy. Despite all his issues with Pierce as an institute, he says that, “I truly enjoy and respect my students. I have to say that sometimes I think teaching is an act of love. I really do care about my students. The easy part about retiring was no longer having to be told how to teach by people who don’t have the faintest idea what they’re doing. That is the point I emphasize to you, and you can quote me on this: there is just a lot of nonsense that I am sick and tired of putting up with. Quite frankly I think the administration should keep their noses out of the classroom and let us do our jobs. I think things would be a lot better. That was the easy part. The hard part was that I intensely enjoy teaching. And every morning I talk about this with my wife: one less class, one day closer to ending a part of my life that I really do not want to end.”
But John Simpson does not plan on having an idle retirement. “I’ve often thought that when I stop, that’s when I die. If I keep moving, I’ll be fine.”
He intends on continuing his teaching as a substitute teacher at the high school level, most likely within the Clover Park School District. He wants to hone his skill in artistic photography. He continues to work as an elected official in the Lakewood City Council. And who could forget about his humble coffee stand on the corner of Steilacoom and Hipkins.
As for his last message to the college: “To faculty: question everything. Just because someone says something does not mean it’s good or bad or this or that. To students: Get involved. Stay involved. Learn as much as you can. Don’t give up. Don’t let anything get in the way of completing your education. Take advantage of every opportunity that you get. And for me: the biggest three words that have helped me in my life? Don’t forget to say ‘please,’ and ‘thank you.’”