We tend to think that it’s students who remember their teachers, either for good or bad years, after they graduate (“Why hundreds of students dropped everything to pay tribute to a Hamilton High teacher,” Los Angeles Times, Sep. 27). But the opposite is also quite true (“Do teachers remember their students? The answer is yes,” Los Angeles Times, Sep. 26).
I say that from personal experience and from what other teachers have told me. For rookie teachers, the first students they have can make or break their careers. When I completed my licensing requirements through UCLA, I was immediately offered a position at the high school where I done my student teaching. I was extremely fortunate to be given five classes of students who were eager to learn and respectful. I vividly remember posing a question to my first English class and seeing many hands go up. They addressed me as “Sir” even though I was only a few years older than they were.
Perhaps because of this welcome reception, I can still recall many of the students in my first year in the classroom. There was a warmth that confirmed my decision to make teaching in high school my lifetime career. As I’ve written before, I’ve made it a point to attend the class reunions of the high school. When students come up to me, I usually can tell them something about themselves before they can say anything.
Yet there were also students I recall most unfavorably because they were disruptive, if not downright dangerous. Near the end of my career, I had a student who transferred into my class and sat motionless. It was only a few weeks later that he was arrested and expelled when the gun he was carrying went off on the school bus, hitting a student. I wonder what I would have done if he had decided to pull out the piece in my class. In those days, campus police did not scan students arriving at school.
The point is that finding fulfillment in K-12 teaching ultimately comes from the kind of relationships teachers establish with their students. Teaching in those grades is not for those who can’t relate to young people, with all their joys and sorrows. Certainly teaching subject matter is the paramount reason for making the classroom a career. But it is not enough to go the distance. Looking back, I’m convinced my students taught me more than I ever taught them. I’m forever grateful to them.
The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.