College of Education > News and Publications > 2015: 04-06 news > Education professor Jim Nolan loves his job enough to leave it after 28 years

Education professor Jim Nolan loves his job enough to leave it after 28 years

With Professional Development School 'in good hands,' Nolan wants to spend time in classroom and time on golf course.
Education professor Jim Nolan loves his job enough to leave it after 28 years

Jim Nolan

College of Education professor Jim Nolan loves what he does and shares an equal passion about the idea of no longer doing it.

Jim Nolan
Jim Nolan will retire from the College of Education after 28 years.
That prevailing thought led not to internal conflict but a decision to retire in June while still at the top of his game.

Nolan will sign off on a 28-year career at Penn State, the last 17 of which have been spent creating, refining and perfecting the Professional Development School program between the College of Education and the State College Area School District.

“I still love what I do; I love it,’’ Nolan said. “I think you need to leave when you love it. I think too many people wait till they don’t love it any more or they’re around so long that people are looking at them behind their backs thinking, ‘when is he going to leave?’’’

His passion for PDS punches no time clock and the hours are beginning to get in the way of life at what will be age 65 in July.

“I love the PDS program a lot; I can’t do it halfway,’’ he said. “I find myself working till 9, 10 o’clock at night and eight to 10 hours every weekend and I’m just tired of it. If I could just go during the day and work, I’d keep doing it. I just need to do some other stuff.

“I’ll be 65 in July, not that that’s old, but you look and you think you don’t get a guarantee about how many years you get when you’re going to be healthy and able to travel and do the things you want to do. I just felt like it was time. But I do think it’s important to leave before people are thinking you should be,’’ Nolan said.

He might be hard-pressed to find someone within the College with those thoughts.

“Jim’s retirement is bittersweet,’’ said outgoing curriculum and instruction department head Carla Zembal-Saul. “I could not be happier for him, but it is a significant loss for C&I, the College and teacher education. 

“He is not only an exceptional scholar and teacher educator, but also a caring and dedicated colleague who has contributed selflessly to the success of his colleagues, students and the department in general.’’ 

In the years prior to Penn State, Nolan was a counselor at West Branch Area High School in Clearfield County before earning his Ph.D. from Penn State with the thought of becoming an assistant superintendent. He taught at Lafayette College and the University of Scranton, his alma mater, prior to taking the Penn State job.

Nolan conducted staff-development workshops and peer coaching during the early days of his Penn State tenure. He had a health scare that ultimately revealed nothing, but while waiting on test results, he did some self-reflection on whether he was having an impact on students. 

“I can’t say I was ever unhappy here. I’ve always loved Penn State and I’ve always enjoyed working here and I’ve always worked with great people the whole way,’’ Nolan said. He found his niche in 1999 with the creation of the PDS program. 

“I can’t say I was ever unhappy here. I’ve always loved Penn State and I’ve always enjoyed working here and I’ve always worked with great people the whole way.’’

“I have just loved every minute of it, absolutely,’’ he said, citing that that was his “biggest accomplishment’’ and that it will “be in good hands’’ upon his departure. 

Since the PDS program is strictly voluntary, Nolan adopted a simple philosophy, one he learned from former mentor Bob Nicely. 

“If you work with people who are voluntarily working with you, you can either accept what they can give you or you can resent what they can’t give you,’’ Nolan said. “And I thought that was a wonderful philosophy. 

“The PDS work, everybody who does it is a volunteer. Students who are interns don’t have to do it, the faculty don’t have to do it, the teachers don’t have to have people in their rooms. So everybody’s a volunteer. 

“So I think that was a wonderful piece of advice. I’ve also tried to treat people with compassion if I got a chance to do that,’’ he said. 

College of Education Dean David H. Monk believes one of Nolan’s quality professional traits is connecting the world of practice with the world of research and theory. 

“A lot of times you have faculty members who are good at one but maybe not so good at the others,’’ Monk said. “But he’s been successful in both arenas and makes the connection so that it strengthens the role of research in the world of practice. 

“He just has that ability to make those connections; that stands out in my mind,’’ Monk said. 

What stands out in Nolan’s student-centered memory banks is the learning that took place as a result of teaching graduate courses in supervision, staff development and teacher training. “One of the reasons I came back to Penn State is I wanted to work with doctoral students; you learn so much,’’ Nolan said. 

“People have the perception that at a place like Penn State if you earn tenure then you can sort of let down. That is not true because doctoral students push you all the time. I work with people who are so bright and talented at that level and that’s been wonderful.’’ 

At the undergraduate level, Nolan marveled at the students’ energy and enthusiasm. 

“I have seen so many undergraduate students make a difference with kids just because they thought they could,’’ he said. “They hadn’t learned yet that you don’t make a difference with every student and so they worked harder. Their passion, their enthusiasm, their energy is just phenomenal. 

“What is remarkable is some teachers keep that their whole career. They know deep down they’re not going to get to every kid, but they treat every kid as if they can get to them,’’ Nolan said. 

“What is remarkable is some teachers keep that their whole career. They know deep down they’re not going to get to every kid, but they treat every kid as if they can get to them.’’

When he closes his office laptop for the last time, he said he’ll reflect on the wonderful colleagues he’s worked with – “people who are bright, passionate about what they do and are committed to it’’ – and look ahead to some time on the golf course, in particular the Burning Tee League on the University Golf Courses. 

He also plans to take some courses in Penn State’s Go 60 Program and wants to continue to visit classrooms and “have teachers put me to work.’’ 

Nolan labeled the College of Education as “a great place to work,’’ cited Dean Monk for his support and described as “wonderful” the opportunity to work with, among others, people such as associate C&I professor Bernard Badiali and Berks campus chancellor Keith Hillkirk. 

What he can’t do is turn back the clock, as much as he might like. 

“The first group of children I taught in sixth grade are now 51 or 52 years old,’’ Nolan said. “I still would like to call them and say, ‘Could you come back? Could we try it once more? 

“Because I could be a lot better teacher now than I was then because I have learned so much about teaching from these wonderful teachers and their enthusiasm. I’ve worked with teachers who are retiring after 35 years and they’re still learning how to teach. They’re wonderful teachers but they still know they can be better. 

“That’s been remarkable,’’ Nolan said.

By Jim Carlson (June 2015)