Yesterday, I received an email from a student who was part of two different classes that I teach. He wrote to update me on his work this summer, and to inquire about my daughter’s recently finished college semester. He asked if we could find a time for a Zoom call to catch up more.
Last Saturday, a former student and her husband came by for drinks and brought pizza for dinner. We talked about her mother, who recently had a significant surgery, and their plans for buying their first house.
A former teaching assistant wrote to me last week about his hopes for the next stage in his career, and to ask for ideas and strategies.
I had my own (elective) surgery three weeks ago, and received texts from several former students who had heard about it and wrote to ask how I was doing.
On the day of graduation a few weeks ago, I received a group picture - in graduation robes - of a group of students who met each other and got their start in my class, and stayed in touch and built deep friendships amongst themselves. They wanted me to know that they had done that, and to see them graduate (this year, graduation was closed to all but family members).
I am sure you have similar stories, events, and contacts from former students. And in a way these contacts are mundane, every day activities between friends and colleagues (well, except perhaps for the pizza, which was delicious). I do not think I am exceptional, but one of the benefits of teaching for a long time is I have somewhere around 1,000 people walking the earth whom I have had the privilege of helping - in one way or another - on their journey in life.
What I did not realize, when I got into teaching full time, that this is really what it is all about. Let me say that again, and please forgive the shouting. THIS IS REALLY WHAT IT IS ALL ABOUT. When I was new to teaching full time, I focused really hard on the content, on the teaching methods, on the feedback I provided, etc. And those things are certainly important. But I realize now that the reason I got into teaching, and stay in it, is the relationships formed.
The value of teaching, the essence of it, is moving another’s heart in such a way that they are changed for the better. The content is secondary. I do not seek out these continuing relationships after the class in which we met have concluded. But I do let all my students know that - now that we have worked together for a full school year - I care about them and want them to be happy and constructive citizens, and do well. When each semester comes to a conclusion, in my message to them at the end of the last class, I always say these words:
If - next month, next year, ten years from now - you ever wonder if I would like to know how you doing, and what you are up to, the answer will always, always, always be YES.
And why do I say that? Simply because it is true. I figure if I have put my best efforts forth, I hope I have helped them, and the payoff to me is in hearing that they are doing well. Do I follow up with them individually? No - I don’t pester them. I leave it up to them if they want to tell me what they are doing. I just want them to know that if they wonder if I’d like to know, that I would.
There is a quote you’ve doubtless heard, and it has been variously attributed. But I believe it was Henry Adams who said:
A teacher affects eternity. He or she can never know where their influence ends.
There is great wonder in that truth. I love at least two things about it. First, that we influence our students (we hope of course to the good). Second, that we will never know in what way or to what end we have influenced them. But that what we do with our students ripples across generations, well into the future. That quote is a lovely and potent combination of fact and mystery.
One day almost a decade ago, I came home from work and my daughter wanted to tell me a story. That day, she had gone to a career fair at her high school and met someone who had been a student of mine several years prior. They discovered this, and then the former student said:
I hear your Dad’s voice in my head all the time, guiding me.
I tell my students they are my legacy. Maybe I accomplished a few things in this life, but in the grand scheme of things, to be honest - not very much. But I know that my students will go on and do great things. I love hearing about it when they do, but I also love hearing that they are happy and healthy and growing as human beings.
Please share your own stories about hearing from your students after they have left your class, by clicking the button below:
Letters of Recommendation
I can recommend a book by Robert Pinsky, former Poet Laureate of the United States. It is called Essential Pleasures: A New Anthology of Poems to Read Aloud. Having been published over a decade ago, it’s not so new. But it is a lovely collection of poems that, indeed, are worth reading aloud. One poet inexplicably overlooked in this volume, however, is quoted below.
Q of the Week
The Q of the Week this week is a short poem from the great American poet Mary Oliver:
Hello, sun in my face.
Hello, you who made the
morning and spread it over the fields.
Watch, now, how I start the day,
in happiness, in kindness.
One of my personal favorite stories like this: It's my first day teaching at a new elementary school. A young woman runs up to me asking, "Do you remember me?" It takes me a minute, but yes, yes I do. She had been in my class just <mumble> short years ago. We spent a full year working alongside each other. It was a constant reward to see how good a teacher she was becoming.