A Difference?

24 01 2011

As I approach the fifth anniversary of my retirement from full-time traditional classroom teaching I seem to have a lot of former students making contact with me over the last few months.  I am not quite sure why so many have decided to touch base with me lately but it has been very satisfying to know that they think it’s worth the effort.

Back in the late 1980s when I first gave serious thought to changing the direction of my life and going into teaching I had a lot of back-and-forth conversations with myself.  When I finally decided to do more than just think about it I drove down to the IU campus in New Albany and made an appointment with people in the Education Department to see if my goal of teaching was even reasonable.  Oh, I knew it was possible but I had to consider the time lines, the finances and the obstacles I would have to overcome just to get certified.

I earned my bachelor’s degree in 1971 but only had one job offer–Guam.  As I look at it now that would have been a marvelous experience but at 22-years old I just couldn’t see it.  I went into business and put teaching in a compartment somewhere in the back of my psyche.  In 1973, I got an unsolicited offer to teach English in my hometown of Princeton.  I turned it down; taking a pay cut of nearly 40% was just not feasible at that point in my life.

Not until a few years ago did I realize that over the twenty years or so I was in the business world I did find outlets for my need to teach–coaching, being a Scout Master, etc. Still those activities did not completely satisfy my needs.

When I walked into the office of the Dean of Education in the summer of 1990 with my transcripts in my hand, she looked over them and smirked.  I had that “Oh,shit!” feeling and thought that I might be on some sort of a Don Quote-ish type of quest. She then said something that changed my life, although I did not understand how much of an impact it had on me until years later.

“I suppose you think you can make a difference, don’t you?”

How in the hell was I supposed to answer that question?  I just knew it pissed me off.

“Hell, yes, I think I can make a difference.” I thought to myself.  Why else would someone want to go into teaching.  That would be like asking someone who wanted to go into business if he thought he could make money.

The undeniably cynical tone in her voice solidified my resolve to the point that she was going to stand in my way. However, I had enough business experience to know that she was the troll who lived under and guarded the bridge I had to cross.  I had to answer her question in just the right way. I put a leash on my ego, kissed her butt and justified it as pragmatism.  I answered her in my most humble voice saying I hoped that I might make a small difference for at least a few kids.

A few years later, I was at a national education conference in New York when I heard a speaker say something that put much of that experience in perspective. The speaker stated that there were only two reasons people became teachers.  He said the first reason people become teachers is because that was all they could do in life. He said the second reason people became teachers is because that was all they could do in life.  That’s not a typo–let me explain.

The speaker went on to elaborate that there are people in education who are so inept at everything else, teaching is the only thing they can do to earn a living.  Then there are people who are so well-equipped to be teachers, it is the only thing they can pursue as a profession that is truly satisfying for them.  I understood that point so clearly it can only be described as an epiphany.

Twenty years removed from that conversation with the Dean of Education, I wish there was some way that the students I had the opportunity to work with could answer her question.

Every time a former student makes contact with me I get this warm, fuzzy feeling and confidently say to myself, “Damned right I made a difference.”  I got the opportunity to impact generations not yet born.  In my life that is about as good as it gets.

The good feeling a parent gets when he sees his own children grow to adulthood, succeed and be happy in life is similar to what I feel as a teacher when former students, now adults want to tell me about their children, their lives and recall memories of our times together back in high school complete with something I don’t remember saying that really stuck with them.  The big difference is that some times a student will surface and tell me how I impacted his or her life positively and I thought I was just talking to a wall and making no progress in “getting inside their heads.”  I suppose the students that I either had a negative impact on or had no impact on at all will probably never make the effort to contact me.  I regret not being good enough to make a difference in their lives.

-gw-

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