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Dawson icon fears retirement: “I’ll miss them too much.”

June 2009

After 52 years of teaching, Greta Hofmann Nemiroff says she still likes everything about it – except maybe marking.

“It’s pretty difficult to think of retiring,” says Nemiroff, a teacher at Dawson College. “I’m not afraid of not having things to do. I’ve spent most of my life with people between the ages of 16 and 25 and I’ll miss them too much. That’s my fear.” Nemiroff is the coordinator of the Creative Arts Literature and Languages program at Dawson College and a New School Teacher. In New School, students have the option to take their humanities or English courses using the principles of humanistic education.

Nemiroff stumbled into New School almost by accident. She was instrumental in setting up Vanier College and organized the English and Creative Arts departments. She was there for three years when she fell ill and was became temporarily blind. “I was at home crabby and grumpy because I couldn’t do anything,” she says. Her ex-husband was meeting with a Dawson teacher who was setting up a new program called New School. So Nemiroff advised him. “And that was that,” she says.

She saw an ad looking for staff for New School and didn’t apply. “The coordinator phoned me and asked why I hadn’t applied. I said that I was quite comfortable at Vanier and he said, ‘That’s the trouble, you shouldn’t be comfortable.’”

She began teaching at New School in 1973 and was asked to be the director in 1975, a post she held until 1991.

She says she recognizes the generation gap between her students and herself. “I am really very bored with teenage culture. I don’t find it very deep or very interesting. So I told the kids that I wanted them to learn about my old lady culture.” She explains that she wants to show her students what Montreal has to offer because many of them only know a very narrow world. She takes them to the theatre, the symphony and museums. “My job as an educator is to help people stretch their worlds, not retract them into even smaller little circles.”

Greta Nemeroff takes her Dawson College students to museums, the theatre and the symphony Photo: Scott Philip

Being with young people doesn’t make Nemiroff feel younger. It reminds her how old she is. “I think that I am 71 years old. There is nothing like being with young people to realize that you are not a young person,” she says. But she always tries to pick topics for her classes that her students can relate to. “I want to find something that’s important to them. First I come up with a theme: friendship, love, home...” She explains that she still faces a lot of challenges when trying to appeal to CEGEP students. “I’ll often ask kids, ‘How many of you have read a whole book beginning to end?’ Most of them haven’t. I just feel that a whole culture is closed to them.” She says that if the students had the motivation or self-discipline to read a great work, or to go to a museum, they would discover interests and broaden their understanding of what happens in the world. “It’s hard to sell that to students because they’re dealing with so many things in their lives. They’re dealing with a world that can spin very much out of control very quickly for them.”

She finds that it can be a challenge to get them to focus, one of many Nemiroff faces as an educator. “Each human being is a mystery and learning to understand that person and where that person is coming from is a task. I learn a lot about human motivation.”

She loves to learn about people and what makes them tick. “To me, it’s extremely exciting to see people grow. What could be better than to see young people grow and see their consciousness change? I’ve been in touch for 30 years with people I have taught and saw them through having babies.”

She says that following the lives of past students and getting to know so many people is interesting. “It’s like living in the centre of an extremely complicated novel.”

Nemiroff is a big supporter of the CEGEP system, but says that it has many flaws. “I’m not sure that they realized how expensive it would be to put in this new level of education. What’s happened is that teachers’ workloads have doubled.”

She explained that when the CEGEP system was relatively new, the teacher/student ratio was 25 to one, and has now increased to 45 to one. “I just don’t think that we are able to give the students the kind of attention that many of them need. “I think that CEGEPs have been a success story overall, but I also think that the resources that are going into them are diminishing and that’s really a shame.”

Between 1991 and 1996, Nemiroff took a five- year break from Dawson to chair the Women’s Studies program at Ottawa University, but returned to New School. “It’s the love of my life.”

Nemiroff says she adores teaching, but is finding it harder to multitask. “What happens when you get to be my age is that you get tired. I used to be able to juggle a whole pile of balls in the air.”

She says that the realization that she can no longer handle many tasks at once is shocking.

But she doesn’t envy the young people that she teaches one bit. “One year, my students asked me if I feel jealous of them, because they’re 18 and in a wonderful state and I’m a hag. And I said ‘Well, if I were a believer, I would be down on my knees thanking the goddess that you only have to be 18 once in your life.’”



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