A Gift That Never Stops Giving–Being a Teacher*

I wrote this post five years ago and re-post it now as both children and youth get prepared for the next school year. And teachers –both rookies and veterans–gear up for 2019-2020.

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.

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

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