Tuesday, July 31, 2007


Yesterday we had a group of incoming high school juniors come into our class to talk about the experience they'd had when they took freshman English from my TA. I was absolutely floored to hear their stories and the way they spoke about them. Two said that they had never read a chapter book until that year, but now they're reading some serious literature and loving it. Their writing was better than 90% of what I used to read when I worked at U of M's writing center. They were completely respectful and encouraging of each other and couldn't stop talking about all they'd learned from each other, their writing, the readings, and from themselves. They were so self-aware and self-confident and clearly articulated their love of learning and value of education. It was beautiful.

By the end of their presentation, I looked around the room and more than a few people were, like myself, choking back the tears. These students had all undergone very powerful, very real transformations. These kids were proof that teaching can make a difference, that I have the power to change a students' lives forever. Here were eight students from completely different backgrounds (in many senses of the word "different"), who all happened to end up in the same class and come away as amazing people. They made a point--without prompting--to remind us that all of us future teachers can impact our own students in the same way. The whole thing about teachers changing lives gets a little old and starts to feel cliche, especially when everyday is a bombardment of five million things that make me wonder if I'm doing everything wrong. Hearing it from the students' themselves made it fresh and raw again.

However, I left feeling nervous. First there was the issue that not every student will find THAT teacher, so what happens to them? A friend of mine told me that although she feels the same sentiment, it made her think about how she can be that teacher for her students. True, but I also can't reach every student in every classroom, let alone every student in my own classes. I'm having a really hard time with that. Even if I always shoot for 100% (which you have to, right?), I also have to realize that hitting 100% is ridiculously unlikely. Why did I enter a profession where the kind of success I want is not only impossible to achieve, it's impossible to measure.

What was more disturbing to me was a more logistical/practical concern. A few students mentioned that they'd never even seen the point in school, let alone higher education, until being in this freshman English class, but now they can't wait to get to college. I'm excited for them and their change of heart, but I also worry that just WANTING to go to college is not the toughest barrier they're going to face. The cost alone shuts so many students out. Yes there are scholarships, but getting them is easier said than done. And yes there are loans, but what happens when they're hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt at age 22? True, a college education will help attain a job that can repay that, but a college degree by no means guarantees an income. How many of these students, all of whom have so much promise, will actually make it through college? What happens to them then? And this is the same story for so many kids. How are we letting all this promise just fall to the wayside? Can you imagine what would happen if we actually tapped into it?


AP said...

you cannot help everyone achieve their future goals, you are only one step in a very long ladder. Just be thet person who help when they can. you cannot lose site of the trees for the forest.

Roni said...

I second ap. Ideals are just that: ideals. Practically, teachers point to and open doors for students. Some find their way through, others choose to jump out the nearest window, and still others will make a few confused circles before walking out the door (after you've long left the room-as far as you're concerned they're still circling).

Ideals are what keep you aiming high; AIMING HIGH is what makes you as effective as you can be. Remember, not even Robin Williams was able to reach every student in Dead Poets Society, and that's just about as inspirational a teacher flick as has been made.

I often wonder if those kinds of movies and inspirational talk actually raise society's expectations of teachers to an unrealistic level. Any thoughts?

Jen said...

One thing you can do for your students is to bring up the points that you bring up here - college is NOT the only route. Community colleges can change lives, too, with a lot less debt. This is one of my "things" right now, that you have to have a college degree for so many things in the U.S. that it's simply NOT necessary for. We've thrown our vocational ed. programs out the window and we're ending up with kids in serious debt who have trouble getting jobs that pay enough to get them out of that debt. I think the opening doors point is important - there's not just ONE door.
Your TA must be a wonderful teacher ;-). I'm glad you're having these inspirational experiences.

Geetha said...

I definitely agree that college is not the only route, and I should have made that clearer. I just worry about the kids who decide they want to go to college and that college is what will work for them, and then they're shut out for financial reasons. College is not my goal for every student, but if that's their goal for themselves, it makes me sick that such unnecessary external factors might keep them from it.

Anonymous said...

The other thing to remember is that as a teacher every time you do touch a student, you touch countless more through that student. That old play it forward stuff. Think back to people--teachers and others--who have affected how you view life. That trying to be 100% means you will touch many and that will be passed on. Keep aiming high but cherish the successes along the way.

Jen said...

I guess what I was trying to say, is that I think that kids CAN be very inspired by teachers in terms of college. And it may be that "the kids who decide they want to go to college and that college is what will work for them, and then they're shut out for financial reasons" have decided, in part, because it's what society expects them to do - that golden door.
As an influential teacher, you can discuss that golden door, but let them know there are other doors, too. Does that make sense? And yes, I hate that kids are shut out for financial reasons. It kills me that we don't provide free higher education for deserving students, like most other industrialized nations.

Becky Domegan said...

"Why did I enter a profession where the kind of success I want is not only impossible to achieve, it's impossible to measure." Geetha, you'll always seek greater success by any definition, it's just who you are. Thank you for embracing that quality and inspiring the rest of us!