Me: Happiest of Birthdays!
Former student: Ms. James! Hey so thanks for changing my life during your class. You gave me so much confidence during our newspaper escapades. SO many great memories.
Me: OMG. That makes my day! ❤️☺️❤️. Thank you!
Former student: I’d say thank you but it just wouldn’t do it justice. So I guess I’ll say it in all caps, which makes it so much more intense. THANK YOU!!!!
My response to the second thank you was to sit at my computer and cry. It’s been a decade since last I taught, but it was apparent that I had left an impression on this young man. When you leave teaching, it’s difficult to see the impact you have on students’ lives once they leave your school. Through the magic of social media, which was in its infancy when I taught, I’ve been able to keep in touch with many of my favorite students. Yes, there were favorite students. Any teacher who says she doesn’t have favorites is lying.
The favorite kids are the ones who consider you a favorite and allow you to have greater influence over their lives than their parents sometimes do. It is a great responsibility that I admittedly sometimes miss even 10 years later. At the same time, many of those students know they can still reach out to me, and I will be there for them when they need me.
A Little Tough Love
When they were still my students, I had to be careful about the tough love. Yet some of them needed it. Many of my students saw me more than they saw their own parents. I knew what they were up to while some parents were in the dark.
High school kids engage in some of the most dangerous behavior of their lives at one of the most vulnerable periods in their lives. They are growing into their bodies and forming their personalities, and some of them are going to, frankly, do stupid things, like bring alcohol to school, as one of my favorite 12th graders once did.
Being truly disappointed in a student is a fine line for an educator. One writer pointed out that, like William Forrester in the movie Finding Forrester, a disappointed teacher can be very good at what she does or be very dangerous. I agree up to a point: teachers who administer tough love because of disappointment can be effectively dangerous. We can motivate our students to do great things after a disappointing turn of events.
According to the student who brought the bottle of booze to class, my quietly delivered lecture helped her see that if she didn’t change, she would be stuck. Instead, she has a stable family of her own and a steady job. She has admitted that if it weren’t for my reaction to what she did, she might have done it again and started down a spiral she couldn’t end.
Once an Editor
I taught English and Language Arts in the secondary classroom for four years, one of my “specialties” was grammar. I even taught a grammar-specific class my first year of teaching. I love grammar. While it frightens other people, I think it makes the world go ‘round.
When students left my classroom and moved on to others, or moved on to college, I often received emails and requests asking me to look at papers and application essays. I can remember having to remain silent when a colleague remarked on the grammar of a student’s paper. I’d helped, but that student was no longer mine.
Now that many of my former students are leaving college and starting careers, they ask for advice on their resumes or on cover letters. Sometimes, I get the occasional Facebook message asking for grammatical advice on a post. While these are usually couched in humor, I appreciate that they respect my advice and care enough about their social media presence to ask for it. Many of them have blogs and websites they use for work and personal branding. Poor grammar could hurt readership and traffic, and I appreciate helping my former students succeed.
Always a Mentor
There are times when you don’t know the impact you’ll have on a student until that student is grown and comes back into your life. You can try to help guide her to a better path when you see her struggling. Yet it can sometimes take years for you to learn how you’ve helped.
One former student struggled with finding a new job after years of toiling away in a call center. After trying nearly every way of pivoting careers for her dream job, she landed on seeking out a mentor. As she already considered me a mentor, she sought out my advice on changing careers.
Being there for my students also helps me stay accountable to myself as much as to them. When one very innocently referred to my unhealthy weight in an essay I was editing, it helped me realized it was time I needed to do something about it. My former students, who are nearing their 30s, still see me as an example, and I was slowly killing myself. I couldn’t encourage them to make better choices if I wasn’t doing so as well.
When we leave the classroom, teachers leave an indelible imprint on their students. For some, it can be one that lasts so long and is so deep you become part of each other’s families. Sometimes we don’t even know until we send a simple birthday wish, and floodgates open. If you teach, remember that you will leave behind more than rote knowledge for your students, and they will stick with you, too.
Classroom by europedistrict on flickr – some rights reserved
Graph Image Courtesy of Bradley University Online
Guest Author Bio
H. E. James, MBA
Hattie is a writer and researcher living in Boise, Idaho. She has a varied background, including education and sports journalism. She is a former electronic content manager and analyst for a government agency. She recently completed her MBA and enjoys local ciders.