A Letter From A Former Student

A former student of my nearly 30 year college teaching career found my blog and sent me email updating me about her life over the last fifteen years or so. In it she said:

I am so grateful that you and a small handful of other people I have encountered in my life had such an influence on me, in teaching me how to think for myself and how to not be a sheep, to not settle for accepting the world at face value, and the value in asking questions. I am sure you had a similar impact on other students … Thank you a million times over!

In addition, I have another former student from years ago with whom I regularly correspond and get together when he comes to town. (There are few like this; most of your students forget you.) I recently received a birthday from him which contained this excerpt: “You remain one of the greatest inspirations from an otherwise boring and uneventful college experience.”

Students & Teachers

l begin with a disclaimer. I am not publishing the above so anyone thinks I was a great teacher. I’m sure for every nice letter one receives from a former student there is another student who longs to write its antithesis.  And as anyone who has ever read class evaluations of their teaching knows, the “this guy changed my life and should win the Nobel Peace Prize” evaluation is followed by one that says “this guy is the worst human being who ever lived.”

My graduate school department chair gave me the best advice I ever heard about class evaluations. In a typical sample of about 30-40, he said, take the 2 best and the 2 worst, throw them out and focus on the remainder. I think he was right. What I have found is that no matter what you do some students really like you and some really don’t. So it is the majority in the middle that provides the best feedback. Still, the entire process of teaching evaluations done by students is suspect. Although I always did pretty well on them, I’ve often thought that they were bad for education, forcing instructors to grovel for student affection.

Why I Published The Excerpt

I think the excerpt from the letter above captures the essence of teaching and learning, especially its emphasis on thinking for oneself, asking questions, and not merely being a follower. Thinking is about wondering, questioning, fantasizing, and imagining, as another of my recent posts suggested.

But to be reminded by one of those nearly 10,000 students of your influence is strangely rewarding. That you made a bit of difference to someone’s life makes your life seem, for a brief moment, meaningful. No, it doesn’t mean that your life or cosmic life is fully meaningful, but it does bestow some temporary value upon one’s efforts.

And those brief, fleeting, ephemeral moments when you are reminded that everything you have done was not completely in vain is one of the best things life has to offer. Even when the reminder comes from strangers in the past.

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3 thoughts on “A Letter From A Former Student

  1. Like most impactful things in life, they wallop you with their force, you form an immediate psychological defense as they conflict with your little ideas about the world (and at 19 or 20 years old, they are indeed “little ideas”), they lie dormant for awhile, if not forever, and then someday when you have lived into your future, if you are lucky, they rise up in your memory and some of the dots are connected. That gives your life meaning, at least it offers meaning to a portion of your life, which then can propel you forward to keep connecting those dots. And that is much like a religious experience, only better.

    The “you” in this is hypothetical, I actually mean “me”, and in my brain, I see these experiences as a kind of breadcrumb trail back to myself. If that makes sense.

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