Are our actions as classroom teachers remembered? Do we make a difference?
Are the effects of our teaching really life long?
I had an experience in a small elementary school years ago that caused me to
reflect on “the message” we as teachers give to our students that was most definitely, in this one instance, life long.
After the school day had finished for students, an elderly lady, using a cane to hobble up the steep front steps of the inner city school and into the entrance foyer, approached me to asked if I could reproduce a copy of her school record from the early part of the 20th century – 1916 to be exact. She had been a student for one year – Grade One – in this elementary school over 65 years earlier. She had applied for a pension but was told that in lieu of a certificate of live birth which she had long since lost, she could present a copy of a school record with her date of birth indicated.
To the dark, dusty records room I went with the sound of her cane tapping close behind, and with considerable trepidation that I might not be able to locate an individual school record from so long ago. As I perused the file boxes stacked on narrow shelves 18 feet to the ceiling of the store room, I said out loud that I had found the year and asked her if she remembered her teacher’s name. She did, and she spoke the name much too loudly and with obvious scorn! I was taken aback by her tone of voice, but proceeded to find
the class and the card with her name. As I pulled the card from the file, she once again spoke – rather barked – “IS THAT D STILL THERE IN SPELLING?” I quickly observed that she had straight A’s in all subjects but a big, obvious, incongruent “D” in spelling. I answered in a nonjudgmental, flat voice, “Yes, it is”, and before I could continue, she bellowed a response to my unasked question. Her reply has remained with me over my lifetime as a teacher and educator: “I DID NOT DESERVE THAT D! MARY ELLEN TOLD THE TEACHER I CHEATED OFF HER PAPER AND THE TEACHER BELIEVED HER AND GAVE ME A D FOR MY GRADE!”
Okay, I know, most stories have two sides, but the fact that this 72 year old woman remembered this seeming injustice and insult to her as a young child for an entire lifetime has always made me cautious and careful in dealing with young people who feel an injustice might have been done to them. Sixty-six years later I was the recipient of the anger this old lady felt as a young child about a perceived injustice, about a grade, about a
classmate, and most importantly, about a teacher.
Yes, what we do and say as teachers can make a lifelong impression. The young people that we teach daily have impressionable and developing young minds — often with a rigid moral sense of “right” and “wrong” based on the limited experience their world has given them. I’ve also noted that as adults our recollections of our early school years usually center in the affective domain and not, say, in the near perfect lesson plan that a teacher might have carried out with us. We do make a difference in the young lives that we teach and we do have a profound effect that often our youth will carry with them for a lifetime. In the final analysis, it is not what we were taught that we often carry with us for a lifetime, but how we were treated.
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