A couple of weeks ago, I ran into two former students—at a bookstore, no less, which truly warmed the very cockles of my English teaching heart. Both were students I’d taught as seventh graders and then again as eleventh graders in regular public schools (this was prior to my getting into teaching in an alternative setting).
It’s always good to run into these former students from time to time to see that they’ve transitioned into adulthood and managed at least some of the attendant challenges, but it’s especially nice when one takes the time to tell you what an impact you had on them. They come and go through our classrooms so quickly year after year, and we never really know if we’ve actually helped them, taught them anything lasting. It’s almost a gamble and we teachers have to have faith that what we do will pay off somehow, someway we’ll likely never see.
One of the two I ran into made it a point to tell me just how important I was to her as an English teacher and debate coach. She told me she probably never would have gone to college if it hadn’t been for me. That surprised me coming from a kid I remember as being smart, studious and motivated, but then I grew up in an environment where college was an expectation and it’s an easy trap for a teacher—or anyone, really—to assume that we all grow up with the same expectations. Still, whatever I did or said in class must have had some effect and for that I’m grateful because we don’t always know what lessons our kids are really learning in our classes. We hope they’re learning what we’re teaching, but they learn other things too: lessons they take from how we interact with them, speak to them, and treat them. How we approach our subjects too.
Education is an endless process of discovery and there is joy and humor in that—fun, even. Sometimes it’s tough getting there, but the rewards are so great, so fulfilling, that kids who see that in their teachers can’t help but be inspired to some degree. Whether that inspiration leads to college or just getting tomorrow’s essay in on time, it all leads in the same direction and our job is to push those kids a little farther down that path to wherever they want to go.
As educators, I think the most important part of the job is to pass along the love of learning to our students and then teach them the tools they’ll need to teach themselves the things they want and need to know. I’m always telling kids that my job isn’t to solve their problems for them but to help them figure out how to solve them on their own.
It was nice to hear those words from that former student, now an adult with her own family (yet still referring to me as Mr. Brush, as they always do), especially since she was among the very first students I ever taught. I remember that first class on that first day, thinking Good Lord, what if I teach them everything I know and it only takes 10 minutes… what do I do with the other 186 hours and 40 minutes for which I’ve got them this year? I still remember those seventh graders staring back at me—I doubt any teacher ever forgets the kids he teaches in that terrifying first year—and I never would have thought I’d learn as much from them as (I hope) they learned from me.
I guess I knew more than I thought and somehow that love of learning, that curiosity, that drives me must have rubbed off on a few of them. That’s always been and probably always will be the most important thing I teach. But then, you don’t really teach that do you? You have to live it.