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!
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,
But to be reminded by one of those nearly 10,000 students of your influence is strangely rewarding. That you made a small difference in 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, at least in your own eyes, upon one’s efforts.
And those brief, fleeting, ephemeral moments when you are reminded that everything you have done was not completely in vain are one of the best things life has to offer. Even when the reminder comes from strangers in the past.