Did a Teacher Change Your Life?

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Reading Time: 5 minutes

Teachers get a bad rap these days. As we enter into whatever we are calling the late stages of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s easy to pick on teachers for not wanting to be in the live classroom and choosing the virtual learning option when given the choice. If you want to start a loud fight at a party, criticize the teaching profession and someone will join in with an indignant reply that their mother/father, sister/brother, daughter/son, aunt/uncle, or spouse is a teacher and, “You have no idea how hard they work!” Fair enough; it can be a challenging job and it’s not for everyone. An old bumper sticker still holds true today: “If you can read this, thank a teacher.”

If you’re a teacher in middle school, you have my sympathies, since every kid in your classes is dealing with peer pressure, puberty, confusing hormones, angst, anger, anxiety, the desire not to be embarrassed, and the need to assert their tiny bit of independence against every authority figure (parents, counselors, PE coaches, teachers, school staff) they come up against. In elementary school, the kids are mostly compliant and enjoy the classroom experience because there are a lot of activities and it doesn’t usually involve a lot of homework. By high school, most students want to get a job, a driver’s license, a boyfriend/girlfriend, and start to shape their lives. Middle school years are some of the toughest, on parents, students, school staff, and teachers. A lot of patience, empathy, understanding, boundaries, and structure can help those kids survive those treacherous pre-teen years.

Some teachers are ready to be mentors, others just want to “do their eight and hit the gate.” Which did you have and when?

As you consider your own K-12 school years and your undergraduate college or graduate school experiences, if you continued with your education, who were the teachers that really mattered to you? Who were the ones who made your learning journey interesting, safe, even fun? Who were the ones who supported your efforts to master tough subjects? Who were the teachers who listened as you talked about your goals, career aspirations, and dreams? Who helped you shift from one possible career path to the one you’re on now? Who were the ones who gave you encouragement, praise, and even tough love, when they caught you not doing or being your best? Want to hear my guess? It’s a small number of the faculty that you encountered who actually made a difference in your life.

As they say in algebra class, “Let’s do some math.” I’ll use my own learning years as an example. I went through a pretty standard K-6 elementary school experience. The most impactful teacher was in my fifth grade. She was both demanding and terrifying. Her favorite phrase (and why I still remember it vividly shows its impact) was, “Pencils down and eyes up here.” She was a tough taskmaster and I was always nervous in her class that she would call on me and I wouldn’t be prepared. But she mattered the most to me in K-6 because she taught me how to write a real term paper, with footnotes, citations, and a bibliography. She encouraged my writing and gave us time to experiment with it.

In my junior high/middle school years, grades seven to nine, there was one history teacher who made the subject come alive. He was an amateur actor, performing in community theater in his off time, so his classroom sessions were like a production. He was enthusiastic about the past and made learning history more about just dates, places, and long-dead figures. He was the leader of the annual eighth grade trip to Washington, D.C., which I was lucky enough to do during the 1976 Bicentennial celebration. I got to shake President Ford’s hand at a ceremony at the Washington Monument, so there you go.

In my high school years, there was one English teacher who seemed to care about the quality of my writing work. He supported my efforts at creative writing and gave me useful feedback on my essays, not just handing me back a mass of red cross-outs and unfixable criticisms.

In college, it was my freshman academic advisor, who convinced me it would be perfectly fine to change my major from business administration to English in my first year. He encouraged my writing, my lousy poetry efforts, and made being an English major something that sounded lofty and worthwhile.

In my master’s program, one instructor stood out as a mentor and he became a professional colleague and we have worked together on security consulting projects for the past 25 years.

In my doctoral program … well, no one comes to mind as being that impactful. I did the work and got through it.

If I add up all the teachers I had from kindergarten to the last day of grad school, it’s about 86. Five of them mattered the most to me. As an English major, I’ll guess that’s about 6% of the total human beings who stood before me, talking and pointing at a chalkboard or a computer screen, over 23 years of formal schooling. Would you take 6% odds of success in Las Vegas, especially if you have been standing at the roulette table for 23 years?

If you sat down and calculated the number of teachers who mattered to you and who mentored you, in just your K-12 experience, what would be the total?

In high school, did at least one teacher give you insight into the skills of “adulting,” so you knew how important it would be later to know how to balance a checkbook, do basic repairs on your home and car, exercise and eat well, cook and clean, save money, pay bills on time, build credit, and think about building a career over just having a job? The answer I hear from several recent high school grads I know is, “No, no one. There was not a teacher like that for me.”

Are current college students able to find that one academic advisor, counselor, student life advisor, senior professor, tenured faculty, or even a dean who will help them succeed by pointing them in the right direction and giving them praise, feedback, coaching, and corrections along their path? Again, I hear more “not here” than I hear, “Yes, Dr. X is or was my mentor and I value his or her guidance.”

If you have children in the K-12 years, you can probably tell right away by just looking at the homework your kids bring home if their teachers really care about pedagogic learning or are just printing out the lesson plans from several years ago and calling it a day. Assess your child’s teachers by engaging with them. Go to every meeting you can: twice-yearly open houses; parent-teacher conferences; independent study plan meetings; and school-sponsored social events. Professional teachers will seek you out and want to meet you too, not hide in the back and avoid you or your child because they are afraid to engage.

If your child does not feel valued, inspired, praised, and challenged by any one of the dozens of teachers they have had or have now, ask why not?

Most teachers want the best for their students and work hard to help them. But many people only remember the teachers they hated, because they ignored them, criticized them in front of other students, devalued their work, stepped on their dreams, insulted them, called them “dumb,” suggested they would not succeed, caused them tears, allowed them to be bullied by other predatory students, and failed to teach them the basics, in a step-by-step way, so they could use those building blocks to master hard subjects like science and math. When asked, a surprising number of adults will say they hated school because they didn’t feel valued, supported, praised, or taught anything they could use in the “real world.”

Consider your long years in the educational system and the dozens of adults who stood in front of you. If you can count more than five teachers who made a significant difference in your life, consider yourself blessed by their interest in you. If there is more than one teacher in your child’s academic life who wants him or her to succeed, beyond the usual classroom expectations—”show up, memorize the facts or equations, take the tests, and do the homework”—then support (and closely supervise) your child and that teacher or that group of teachers and their efforts.

For the rest of us, I’m afraid the number of teachers who mattered in a meaningful way is too small. What can teachers and their students and the parents of those kids do, together, to raise that number?


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