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On this anniversary of his birth in 1838, it seems an appropriate time for me to reflect upon his famous statement, A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.

I am again, for now, out of the classroom.  Perhaps this time it will be for good, perhaps I will come fall again step into a classroom.  I simply do not know.

I can look back on 17 or so years in classrooms with some satisfaction, but also with some trepidation, because of the second clause of that quote, of not knowing where my influence as a classroom educator stopped.  

Since my role as a writer is also often one of teaching, I can have a similar concern about the words I express, for certainly by now we never know where the words we offer online might next appear, who might see them, how those who see them might react.

To teach therefore is a combination of arrogance and humility.

The arrogance is to believe that those of us who teach can make a difference not only in what our students knows, but help them positively take ownership of their own learning and thinking.  

The humility cannot be avoided if we are honest at how many mistakes we make, if we remember that while we are focusing on one student others are watching and we may miss their reactions.

Most of all, because what we do affects others, it is fair to my mind to acknowledge that teaching is, or should be, an inherently moral act: we seek to improve others, in the best sense of teaching to empower them, but we do not know what they will then do with the skills and knowledge we help them gain, nor if we are honest can we avoid acknowledging that our actions sometimes work contrary to our best intentions, and in our human weakness a moment of pique or even anger can undo weeks of positive instruction in the impact we have upon those we instruct.

Given all that, why teach?  Why take on this responsibility?  And what does all this have to do with our politics?

Let me start with the last.  For some teachers are to be attacked or demonized, in part because they represent a threat to the power or order by which some benefit.  For others they do not value the human dimension of teaching, its relational nature, the commitment to students as well as to the field that the best teachers have.  They are willing to demean teaching, perhaps claiming we only work 9 or 10 months a year, 7 hours a day, ignoring all that we do outside of the assigned hours at school.  They do not respect the craft of teaching, so they want to restrict the freedom of teacher by rigid prescriptions of how much time should be spent on certain lessons, telling us the specific order of activities or knowledge to be imparted, even scripting what we say.  

Or perhaps they define teaching in economic terms, seeking a better "return on investment" even as many who use that approach in business look too narrowly when measuring the return and apply costs of activities improperly - although in the business world ironically it is not including costs paid by society in things like infrastructure and, yes, the educating of their workforce accompanied by a concomitant refusal to pay their share of the taxes necessary to properly provide both.

"If you are so smart, how come you make so little?

"Why, with your gifts, would you want to be a teacher?"

Both of those questions, common in our discussions about those of us who choose teaching, bespeak a mindset that is too narrow, misunderstands the nature of much teaching.  It is also what leads to the idea that we can take a bright person without sufficient training, allow them to serve in a classroom teaching capacity for only two years, and then let that very limited and undeveloped experience serve as the basis of their making policy for their compatriots who choose to recognize that teaching should be a commitment, that is is a craft that is not learned in 5 weeks, that it is in fact as demanding as anything one can ever do.  

No, for most of us who teach we do not face the imminent threat of death or the even more damaging possibility that we will have to kill that is the everyday existence of the soldier in combat.  Few of us worry that when we walk into our classroom we might face violence or ourselves have to apply violence the way many police do when responding to calls, particularly of domestic violence.  We do not presume as does the fireman when we are called into action that we will be presented with a situation of inherent danger, with property and lives at stake, where we will be operating an environment charged with adrenaline, with real risk to our own lives and safety.

Our decisions and actions do not, like those of political leaders, especially the President, have an immediate impact on the value of stocks, or possibly mean that hundreds of thousands will now be confronted with the violence of military conflict.  We do not have the responsibility of giving orders that we know will mean death for those targeted by our military and intelligence actions.  We do not have to way conflicting costs in achieving national goals.

Imagine, however, a room of 15 to 35 young people who are still unshaped, who are somewhat dependent upon you.  If you are an elementary teacher, you will on the average school day be the adult with whom they spend the most time, even more than with their parents, especially in cases where one or both parents works hours that keep them away from home for more than 10 hours a day, or if a parent works more than on job to pay the bills.  If they are very young, you may be dealing with helping them with basic learning about life - how to tie shoes and button clothing, even how to address certain bodily functions.

If, like me, you are a teacher of adolescents at the secondary level (although of course in my middle school days I taught students as young as 11), you are confronted with all the issues of that age - self-image, developing bodies, acne, awakening of sexuality, insecurity from not knowing where one belongs in the segments of society in which one spends one's waking hours.  On this list, think back to cliques especially in junior high school.  And then add to this what we as adults see but on which we often have little impact - in the process of seeking safety for oneself often the resulting action of the students is to demonstrate at least callousness and far too often actual cruelty towards others.  If teaching is a moral act, then surely we need to address this, although that can put us into conflict with parents who effectively, for whatever reason, teach their children to demean or even hate children who might be categorized as "other" by race, gender, national origin, economic status, or especially sexual orientation.

Depending upon the population from which your classroom's occupants come, students may arrive without having had breakfast, or perhaps more than one meal a day over the weekend.  They may not appear for several days because they are living in cars, with no way to bathe regularly, or perhaps to wash the one or two sets of underwear they have.

They may sit before you unable to focus because they are having trouble seeing or hearing because their families cannot afford to address those issues.  Or they are in pain from teeth that are rotting that even families with some health insurance cannot address because in this country we somehow separate oral health from the rest of the body.

Or they arrive at school not having slept because of disorder in the home or the neighborhood.  Or having been physically or emotionally or even sexually abused.  Or living in the midst of substance abuse.  And all of these problems cross socio-economic levels, as I know from my own experience of growing up in an upper middle class household with two parents with problems with alcohol.

So why then do we teach?  Why do we take on this responsibility, especially if we reflect upon the full impact of the words of Henry Adams, that we never know where our influence stops?

From here on my words will be personal.  I will not purport to speak for anyone else nor describe anyone else's experience.  I am aware that one should not universalize from one's own experience.  Yet I have share enough with other teachers to know what I will express is not unique to me.

I have always been fascinated with learning.  I discovered at a very young age that I was good at helping others understand things.  This first came about in an area which is far from my greatest strength, athletics.  As some families moved away and in others the kids older than me grew up, we did not have enough kids for our games of baseball and football.  So I began teaching the younger kids.  I found that I could sometimes get them enthused.  I was able to see where they had problems and find ways to help each on the specific area of difficulty, perhaps how one held a bat, or how one cocked one's arm in order to throw a ball.

I liked to share my passions with others.  In my younger days I did so primarily by speaking.  As I grew older and my shyness had a greater impact on me - especially in being one of the youngest in my class and the impact that had on my social life in secondary school - I began to understand that sometimes I could help others by written or words or by simply modeling and demonstrating, with few words of any kind.

I did not become a skilled writer until much later in life, but I wrote constantly, and slowly began to develop confidence in the words I would put to paper or later to electrons.

It was the encouragement of others that began to make a difference.

There were a few teachers along the way who made a huge difference for me.  I think especially of my Ap US History teacher senior year, who was the first teacher I had ever encountered who found a way to challenge me to which I would respond.  He did not pretend to be brighter than me, because that was not the issue.  He was able to show me that if I applied myself not only would I learn far more, but I would enjoy it.  And most of all he taught me that by thinking of how I might explain to someone different than myself I would actually learn better myself.   That is why when he had to be out and needed competent people to cover his non-AP classes, I was one of two students he asked.  The other would be our valedictorian, and go to Princeton.  I would not be in the top third of my class, yet somehow got in to Haverford.   That other student and I shared one other thing - we were the only two National Merit Scholars in our class.

I became a teacher in part by accident.  The first time I dropped out of high school, for the lack of anything to do, I served as a teacher intern in a Quaker secondary school.  I was an extra body, given opportunities to work with a variety of groups of students, and surprisingly given a great deal of flexibility in how I worked.  That allowed me to be creative.  I also co-taught a course in Great Issues in American History with the Headmaster, who also let me take a major responsibility for the class and the students once he saw my passion for the subject and my willingness to focus on the individual students, something of great importance in a Friends School.  There is one student with whom I briefly struggled to get him to do my work.  How I succeeded became a tale that I would from time to time tell.  Years later my wife, knowing that tale, tracked him down.  He was now a successful doctor in a small Midwestern City, and he remembered our exchange with great clarity, because as he told me in our email exchanges it was the first time any adult had taken his political thinking serious.

A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.

Before I finally decided to become a teacher in my late 40s, I had occasion to teach in the business world, in Sunday Schools, with private musical students for both piano and cello, at first while I was still myself in high school.

At a college reunion in 1992 I wound up telling some of my teaching stories while talking with a classmate who was about to become a principal.  Among those tales was about the young man to whom I referred above.  When we got back to our room, my wife pointed out that when I told those stories my eyes lit up and I became a different person.  I was not happy at what I was doing with computers, although I was of service to my community (I worked by choice for local government) and was making a comfortable, secure living.  Why didn't I explore becoming a teacher?

It took a while, but in 1994 I left my job and enrolled in a Master of Arts in Teaching program at Johns Hopkins, and finally walked into my own classroom on December 8, 1995.

In the ensuing almost 17 years I had moments of great frustration, I had moments where suddenly a student "got it" and felt an excitement that is hard to describe.  I would spend time thinking about what worked and what didn't and why.  I would try to understand my students.

I spent 2.5 years at that first school, a middle school.  Now almost two decades later I am still in contact with some of those students.  In most cases they sought me out.  When I won a teaching award and it was announced through the school system email, among the first three emails I got congratulating me were from students I had taught in that school, all of whom were themselves teachers in the system, two of whom explicitly said I was the reason they were teachers.  Like my high school AP History teacher had an impact upon me that led me to want to be a teacher, apparently my teaching had similar impact upon those three young ladies.

A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.

In the years until I retired in June, I taught several thousand students, some more than once.  I taught as many as 3 kids from the same family.  I wrote college recommendations.  I worked with students in musical theater and mock trial, and coachd them in soccer.  

I had avoided Facebook for some time.  Then I was asked to be on the steering committee for a group of teachers that was organized through Facebook.  I put in my profile where I was teaching, where I had taught.  This is no lie - within 15 minutes I was receiving Friend requests from multiple former students.  While I made a decision I would not friend current students, within three weeks I had reached 500 friends, of whom more than half were former students or their parents.  

For some reason they wanted to reconnect with me.

A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.

Recently one former student who has followed me on Facebook sent me a message about my recent posts about my wife and I dealing with cancer.  She dealt with her mother's cancer, and thus felt she had words she could offer me.   She offered me some welcomed advice from her own experience, and promised to hold us in her prayers. But what really stood out were these sentences:

Thank you for sharing your story, especially considering how large your audience is. Testimony is a very powerful thing and there are people out there benefiting from your courage
These words explain in part why I teach, and also why I often write as I do.  I find that it is in my teaching capacity, which includes much of my writing, I can have a positive effect on others. As a shy person I can make connections that I may not understand, that for some reason my words and my actions seem to connect with others, and thereby empower them.

A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.

I have recently had the experience that a piece I wrote about teaching has gone absolutely viral.  It has now been read more than 100,000 times on the Washington Post website .  It is has been crossposted at numerous other sites, sometimes without asking me or the Post first.  I have received hundreds of emails, Twitter messages and Facebook messages.  It apparently spoke to other people.

It has connected me with former students.

It has also connected me with high school classmates I have not seen since graduation, who themselves are educators.

Like what I did in the classroom, it is illustrative of the insight expressed by Henry Adams:

A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.

I am a teacher in almost all that I do.   Sorry, I cannot help that.

It is how I can most express my deep love for other people.

It is how I keep myself from being isolated within my own shyness, and my own incomplete humanity.

It is how I most make a difference in the world.

It is not measured by how much money I make, or by how much more I could make doing other things.

It is certainly not measured by the test scores of my students, or by how much they might make later in their lives.

If measured at all, it is by lives improved, persons empowered, bread cast upon the waters that they pay forward sometimes without my ever knowing it.

It is satisfying when the results of what I do are positive.

It can be close to terrifying to think of the damage I can do, that I may have done.

We have no children.

My wife will have her continuity especially in the close relationship she has with the childrn of her siblings.

For me?  I have thousands of children who have passed through my care as a classroom teacher.  I have far more who read what I write than I have any right to expect.

And I have the satisfaction of understanding what Henry Adams, born this day in 1838, meant when he offered these words:

A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.


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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (16+ / 0-)

    "We didn't set out to save the world; we set out to wonder how other people are doing and to reflect on how our actions affect other people's hearts." - Pema Chodron

    by teacherken on Sat Feb 16, 2013 at 05:09:31 AM PST

  •  "effects" eternity?? (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Not to be pedantic...

  •  Beautiful and effective example of the rare (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    RiveroftheWest, glorificus

    use of "effect" as a verb. You are a true teacher, Ken. And teachers really do change the future.

    A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit. - Greek proverb

    by marleycat on Sat Feb 16, 2013 at 05:21:55 AM PST

    •  actually, that's a typo. sorry (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      I meant to quote the Adams exactly

      so do not give me too much credit

      "We didn't set out to save the world; we set out to wonder how other people are doing and to reflect on how our actions affect other people's hearts." - Pema Chodron

      by teacherken on Sat Feb 16, 2013 at 05:23:04 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Another God becomes a mere mortal..... ;-) (0+ / 0-)

        OK, while we're at it

        Recently one former student who has followed me on Facebook sent me a message about my recent posts about my wife and I dealing with cancer.
        Shouldn't it be "my wife and me" since "me" is the object of about?

        Never mind, really. It is a beautiful essay, nonetheless.

        A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit. - Greek proverb

        by marleycat on Sat Feb 16, 2013 at 05:32:02 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  I think I speak for everyone here (7+ / 0-)

    when I say that there have been a teacher or two (or ten) in my past who have deeply affected me, and whom I thank implicitly or explicitly far more often than they probably ever could have imagined 40+ years ago.

    Rest assured the storied you know of are only the tip of the iceberg.

  •  Thanks, Mrs Hornbacher, the play IS the thing (5+ / 0-)

    That was my 10th grade Ebglish teacher that got me interested in Shakespeare. Consequently Ive been a Shakespeare fan ever since, read everything he (or whoever) wrote. Ive had a llifelong personal project to see all his plays acted---seen all the Comedies, all the Tragedies, most of the Histories.

    Thanks Mrs Hornbacher, you made a diffference in my life, as the guy who taught me Trig, whos name I forgot

    (PS, after considerable study, I have found out  that Shakespeare's plays were written by a different man with the same name)

    Happy just to be alive

    by exlrrp on Sat Feb 16, 2013 at 05:40:36 AM PST

  •  My senior-year English teacher... (7+ / 0-)

    allowed us to read novels that weren't the standard-issue tomes students usually read.

    One of the books he chose for me was John Hersey's "A Bell for Adano."

    Up till that time, while I often enjoyed reading, I was never passionate about it.

    That book changed everything for me. It's a charming tale set in Italy during World War II, beautifully written and so full of life.

    From that point on, I became passionate about reading and realized the power of the written word.

    A few years ago, I finished my first novel. I've spent a considerable amount of time since trying to land a literary agent. I've come close a few times but so far have fallen short of my goal.

    My novel's protagonist's last name is Adano, which is a tribute to my teacher.

    One of the fantasies I have when -- yes, when -- my novel gets published is to hand-present a copy to my teacher and tell him he played a big part in making it happen.

    How about I believe in the unlucky ones?

    by BenderRodriguez on Sat Feb 16, 2013 at 05:54:40 AM PST

  •  Henry Adams? (4+ / 0-)

    That's where that came from?  I was puzzling over it, because it seemed familiar, but I'd never read it in English before, only seen it in German decades back.  I guess the student who gave the plaque to my father translated it over because he was one of Dad's German students.

    We are what we are because of the people with whom we interact, the lessons we take away from them in what it is to be human.  Teachers long dead made me who I am, as well as those still living.  Academically, we spoke of lineages and ancestry as well, tracing teacher to student, taking pride in being the students of those taught by the great scientists who came before, trying to live up to their ambitious curiosity.

  •  Very nice post, teacherken (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ladybug53, left turn, glorificus, kmoore61

    and so true.  You will never know how far or how long your influence will reach.  Like ripples in a pond going on and on....

  •  Tipped & rec'ed (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
  •  I became a teacher because (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    teacherken, glorificus

    it was the surest way to impact young lives and change the world for the better. Teaching at its best is about love, and compassion, and sharing awe and inspiration. It's encouragement and coaching, and supporting, surprising, and contradicting prejudices and assumptions about others and about oneself.  It is the sharing and creation of knowledge. Teaching requires flexibility and the ability to make adjustments in a heartbeat so as not to miss that precious teachable moment. Teaching requires passion and preparation, and a thick skin. It is about risk; making mistakes and modeling what to do when everything goes wrong. It is about pushing beyond disappointment and persistence. Some days, there are pieces of evidence of change happening- a sudden smile, a nod, a conversation, an act of unexpected  empathy or generosity, a completed homework, a revised essay, perspiration of effort. Other evidence of change happens in private, over years, decades, generations. Teaching is only thwarted when uniformity and standardization is imposed on a human process that must be dynamic and responsive to unanticipated needs. Teaching for me, on its best days, felt like a circus act of revolution.
    I am in my first year of retirement. I am still finding my way forward. Almost everyday, I still find myself mentally preparing an adventure for my students the next morning- those students who will always remain in my mind's eye. Thank you for the inspiration you are every time you post, teacherken. You and your wife are in my most hopeful thoughts.

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