Tuesday marked the last day in a 52-year teaching career for Biz Robbins. She spent almost 40 of those years in Southeast Alaska.
Biz Robbins has been working at the University of Alaska Southeast since 1996. She was hired as an English teacher, but she also worked as a tutor, and ends her career administering an algebra exam.
“You said 11 over 15? So remember this line always means divide.”
Mrs. Biz, as some of her students call her, arrived early and welcomed students’ last-minute questions. Robbins, with straight white hair and a soft smile, walks calmly around the classroom.
Mary Baker is nervous for final exam. She says math isn’t her subject, but Robbins has taught her a lot.
“She’s really good. She takes her time to teach you. At the beginning of this semester of math I was starting to remember math from high school, so it was all slowly coming back.”
Robbins says one of the best parts of teaching is watching students remember or understand for the first time, even when it takes some time.
Robbins says this last class feels special. “Every class has been special, actually. They all carry with them their own burdens and their own ghosts and we try to get rid of them. That was true for English, too, and when I taught in the float camps.”
A large part of Robbins’ career was on the water working as a teacher in mobile logging camps outside of Ketchikan. She recently chronicled her adventures in memoir titled Life Jacket. “That’s a lifestyle that doesn’t exist anymore and I wanted to preserve it.”
Since Robbins published her book many others have come forward with their stories of life afloat, and in her retirement, she hopes to edit another book about that era. But, she’s not leaping into retirement with excitement.
“ It’s scary. I don’t know how it feels. It’s part of my identification. I’m going to have to reinvent myself. And yet all my friends say you’ll find something. I found myself reading in Facebook this morning the cast listing for Mouse Trap. There is a lady 75 years old. They’re looking for somebody. I thinking no. no.”
Robbins might not take up acting, but will continue playing her ukulele and she is planning to stay in Ketchikan for the foreseeable future. She hopes to be invited back to campus in a few years when some of her last students graduate.
UAS academic advisor Gail Klein says one of the things she loves best about Robbins is that she sees her students all the way through.
“Every year when we’re working on graduation she emails me and she’s like who is graduating, because she’ll come to graduation just because they are graduating. She remembers who they are. I give her the names and she’s like, yes I had that student and she really gets to know them and really cares, and makes a point to go to graduation if one of her students is finishing.”
“Because if they place in this class or the other class they have one extra year to complete of math or English so they start behind and it really is a show of perseverance when they finish.”
After she hands out her hand-written tests, which she says she has always done, Robbins sits down to grade one last time. She hopes her work speaks for itself and would prefer to slip out the back door quietly without much fanfare about her contributions to Southeast’s schools and students. She says she has already been repaid.
“Sometimes our greatest payments are not monetary. ”
Biz Robbins won’t completely abandon her life as a teacher. While she will no longer do it professionally, she and a friend plan to continue offering small-sized English-as-a-second-language classes for adults at The Ketchikan Job Center.