The Gift That Never Stops Giving–Teaching*

I wrote this post four years ago. With graduation ceremonies in K-12 and college occurring now and in the next few weeks, and so much in the news about the quality of teaching and how to capture it, I thought I would run the post again.


A dear friend and I exchanged emails recently and she mentioned that she had heard from a student she had in 1960. She had taught in the New York area for a number of years before returning to graduate school but recalled with much warmth how fine a group of sixth graders she had that particular year. The then 11 year-old, now a grandma, had stayed in touch with my friend over the years. She had become a teacher and had just retired and was now writing about the adult lives of classmates.

I began thinking of the often unspoken psychic rewards that accrue (in business terms, I would call it: the return on investment) to experienced teachers who have had many groups of students pass through their classroom over the years and how some of those students (such as Steven Strogatz) make a point of visiting, writing, and staying in touch with their former teachers. Fortunately, that has happened to me when a few former students at Glenville High School in Cleveland and from Cardozo High School in Washington, D.C. have stayed in touch. Ditto from some former Stanford graduates. When letters or pop- in visits occur, I get such a rush of memories of the particular student and the class and the mixed emotions that accompany the memories. Teaching is, indeed, the gift that never stops giving.

Those former students who stay in touch over the years, I have found, attribute far too much to my teaching and semester- or year-long relationship with them. Often I am stunned by their recollections of what I said and did. In most cases, I cannot remember the incidents that remain so fresh in their memories. Nor had I tried to predict which of the few thousand high school students I have taught would have reached out to contact me, I would have been wrong 75 percent of the time. My flawed memories and pitiful predictive power, however, cannot diminish the strong satisfaction I feel from seeing and hearing classroom tales from former students.

However policymakers and researchers define success in teaching or produce pay-for-performance plans the hard-to-measure influence of teachers upon students turns up time and again in those graduates who reach out to their former teachers. Those graduates seek out their former teachers because of how they were pushed and prodded, how intellectual doors were opened, how a ready ear and kind words made possible a crucial next step for that young man or woman. Student test scores fail to capture the bonds that grow between experienced teachers and children and youth who look for adults to admire, adults who live full, honest, and engaged lives. Am I waxing romantic about the currently unmeasurable results of teaching and the critical importance of retaining experienced teachers? No, I am not. I have a point to make.

My friend’s story of her former 11 year-old student still staying in touch because the relationship forged in 1960 between a group of sixth graders and a young teacher has resonated in a handful of graduates’ lives for many years. Something beautiful and long-lasting occurred when those bonds were forged in that Long Island elementary school, something that eludes current reformers eager for getting new teachers into classrooms and not worrying too much if they leave after two years since a new crop of fresh newcomers will replace them.

Turnstile teachers cannot forge those lasting bonds with students. Staying at least five-plus years give teachers the experience and competence to connect with classes and individual students. For those students lucky to have experienced teachers who had their older brothers and sisters, whose classrooms they want to eat their lunches in, whose reputations for being tough, demanding, caring, and a dozen other admirable traits draw children like magnets to their classrooms, the impressions and memories of these teachers will serve as guideposts for the rest of their lives. These are the teachers, district, state, and federal policymakers need to retain through mindful policies that encourage, not discourage teachers–policies that spur teacher growth in what and how they teach, foster collaboration among teachers, and motivate teachers to stay at least five-plus years in classrooms.

Were such thoughtful policies to be adopted, the chances of alumni students returning to tell their teachers how much they appreciated their help would increase and not become just a fleeting memory of some former teachers like me and my friend.

*I thank Selma Wassermann for converting the commercial one-liner for a credit card company into an ad for teaching



Filed under how teachers teach

7 responses to “The Gift That Never Stops Giving–Teaching*

  1. Reluctantly, since I am so often in frightening agreement with your posts Larry, I have to disagree about your belief that, “Turnstile teachers cannot forge those lasting bonds with students. Staying at least five-plus years give teachers the experience and competence to connect with classes and individual students.”

    I could recount many examples but here is just one. I watched one of my Teach First trainees, who left the profession after his two years to work in the City, teaching an incredibly difficult class of 16 year olds, Maths. The entire hour was a tour de force of skill, control, direct communication and learning.

    At the end, as the class were leaving, one of the most demanding, potentially disruptive girls in the room: the kind who routinely destroy entire lessons by many very experienced teachers, burst out spontaneously, “Thanks Sir. That was a great lesson!”

    And I realised, that she had almost certainly never, ever said those few simple words in her entire school career… until that moment.

    • larrycuban

      That is a touching story, Joe, about the new teacher and the stellar lesson that engaged the potential troublemaker. When you have many new teachers, I do not doubt that there are some who are like the one you described. My experiences in supervising young teachers and the research studies that I know tell me that the fine teacher you described is an exception, not the rule. The other possibility that I can consider is that the training program you were associated with is a first-rate one that turned out far better teachers in shorter time than other ones. That they left the classroom after such a short time is the overall point.

  2. When I joined Teach First in their first year, their goal was to retain 60% in the profession and I admit I was openly sceptical about this. But certainly, in the first couple of years, they succeeded. I’m not sure what the figures are now but they are ranked very highly on the Times newspaper’s top graduate recruiters.

  3. Cal

    I’m a public school teacher now (STEP grad), but I’ve taught in private instruction, mostly test prep, for seven years. I’ve had kids for just 12 weeks in a Kaplan class that I still hear from occasionally. Most are now starting grad school and want to know my thoughts on prep and school selection, but others just write to tell me good news. I was entering a department store when I suddenly recognized the young man holding the door open for me–he was a student I’d taught for 3 months four years ago at another private instruction company I work at. He’d seen me from across the parking lot, recognized me, and waited to see if I knew him. We chatted for several minutes and he called the company later to get my email address so he could ask my advice.

    I probably won’t stay at my current public high school teaching job (too far a commute), but I know my kids will email me and ask for help.

    The ability to forge connections really can’t be taught. You either have it or you don’t. And while I went to a highly rated teacher training program, it did nothing to teach me to forge bonds with my students (in fact, the program did its best to sever its bond with me for most of the year I endured there.). I had the skill already, and many of my classmates did as well.

    I’m all for keeping teachers around for five years or more; I just doubt your assertion that time in the field creates the ability to forge lasting connections.

  4. Pingback: Educational Policy Information

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