December 18, 2005

Do teachers make a difference?

Sometimes we have to remind ourselves of this simple fact: teachers make a difference. A huge difference. But how can you tell if your time and energy counts for anything? How do you record the results of those long, thankless hours invested in grading papers, designing curriculum, and sometimes, wiping noses? I sometimes see the results of my influence in the success of my students after they graduate. Many come back to visit me from this university, or from that job experience. This year I’ve had alumni come to visit at least once a week. They love to share how well they are doing, or how much they like, and sometimes dislike, their jobs. I make a deal with my students on the first day they take one of my courses: if they should experience any success using the skills I have taught them, I don’t want any public recognition, I only ask for homemade tamales.

Friday I had an alumni visitor who almost didn’t graduate high school after and incident with one of our security officers. The student had made a typically bad kid decision, and was headed for expulsion. He is a big boy and the security officer who didn’t know him personally had felt threatened by his size. I went to the hearing and vouched for the boy I knew explaining his demeanor in class and the quality of work he had completed. The student was allowed to return and graduated with his class. Although this student spent at least one hour of every day of his high school career attending one of my courses, it was probably my presence at his time of greatest need that made the most difference to his ultimate success. He did not bring me tamales.

The week before a student from the same graduating class dropped by on her way back to UCSB after Thanksgiving. She is working on campus as a graphic designer while she completes her bachelor’s degree and plans on graduating in 2007. Then its off to NYU for law school. I wrote her a letter of recommendation for her undergraduate application to NYU and she was accepted (not due to my letter, she was and is a phenomenal student). However she chose to stay in California. In high school she participated as a cheerleader, in mock trial, and other activities, but it was what she learned in my classroom that is now helping support her college career. She didn’t bring me tamales either.

There are many others. The firefighter, the stereo installer, the two in film school, and the one at Stanford. Whenever I am feeling ineffectual. Whenever I am discouraged or feeling down, I try to think about the success stories that I have enjoyed the privilege of participating in (well perhaps not the stereo installer, not yet anyway.) Many teachers ask this question daily, sometimes hourly, “is it worth it?” Is the endeavor of teaching the young worth my time and energy? Sometimes it doesn’t feel like choosing teaching is worth the long thankless hours, the endless number of hoops to jump through, and the systemic disrespect for the profession. That’s most clearly reflected in our insulting pay schedule. But then, teaching is not about the pay schedule. Teaching is about making a difference.

Teaching was not my first choice. I was hung up on “those who can’t do…” I was on my way to a career as a television producer when I realized that I did not want to spend my life selling soap. After my wife and my father encouraged me to substitute part time I was hooked. I had a better feeling of satisfaction after my first day subbing then I ever had doing anything else. Plus, I had fun when I was in the classroom. I enjoyed the environment, the activities, and most importantly, the relationships that I began to forge with my students, even as a substitute. Once I got my first contract assignment the good feeling that I got from teaching grew exponentially. Even today I look at my students as more than just seat fillers. More than just identification numbers or faceless names on a roll sheet. The students are people who I get to help become better human beings. I love the beginning of the school year because it is the starting point of a wonderful rollercoaster ride the ends even better it starts. I hate the end of the school year because that’s when I have to say goodbye. I am cursed because I made fun of my fourth grade teacher, the first male teacher I was assigned, who shed a noticeable tear on the last day of school. Regardless of the painful emotions I sometimes feel, I wouldn’t want any other career.

Think about the most influential people in your life. After your parents and religious leaders, most of us point to the teachers we had growing up. Life began for me in the 7th grade when my drama teacher cast me in the school play. Up until then I had felt like a lost, lonely, loser. I wasn’t good at sports, didn’t feel popular, and hadn’t found my niche. But with the help of a teacher, I not only found my niche, but I also began to grow emotionally and gain confidence. Confidence that spread beyond the stage into the rest of my classes and other areas of my life. Without the influence of a teacher who chose not to dwell on the mental fatigue, the pointless in-service days, or the “great pay,” but instead rested on his belief that what he did actually meant something in the lives of his students, I would not be writing this now. I certainly would not have chose teaching, and instead of working with kids, would be the worlds greatest television soap-salesman (I added world’s greatest for effect only, not ego.) What a disappointment that would have been to the visitor I had Friday, the UCSB student, the firefighter, the two in film school, the one at Stanford, even the stereo installer, and all the others. I am glad I chose to teach.

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