Last Wednesday, teachers around the globe were recognized in honor of World Teachers’ Day. Chances are, we all can think of that one special teacher who gave us something, besides the next day’s assignments, to take home and really think about. As we reflect on the ways our lives were uniquely impacted in the classroom, we share with you a teacher’s story that gives life to Phil Collins’ lyrics “by learning you will teach; by teaching you will learn.”
“What is this class anyway?” The question came from a freshman on the third day of a new school year. The class was Beginning Journalism, as I patiently explained to him while other students snickered. Some other teachers might be insulted, but I thought, “At least he’s asking questions!”
“I think I’m supposed to be in Phys. Ed.,” he said, so I sent him on his way to the counselor for a schedule change, and that was that. I wish I could remember his name. I’d like to know where life has led him.
You see, one of my favorite pursuits over the last 20 years has been reconnecting with hundreds of former students and hearing of their memories, accomplishments and even their disappointments. I search Facebook and other social media looking for familiar names and making an effort to track former students down.
I began teaching high school English in 1964 and then taught journalism while advising the school newspaper and yearbook. I left teaching in 1979 to continue a career in publishing, but I never lost my love of teaching nor my fondness for my “kids,” some of whom are now grandparents. Most summers find me attending several class reunions, in an effort to catch up with former students.
There are those who have achieved significant careers—a prominent staff member of The New York Times ; the first female anchorwoman for a TV station in Oklahoma City; a justice on the Oklahoma State Supreme Court, the former mayor of Tulsa, the owner of a well-known musical venue, a TV newsman in Dallas—while there are others whose stories might not seem as impressive…except to me.
Guiding a student through the process of writing a story for the school newspaper and seeing his or her name in print for the first time published was fulfilling, but hearing, years later, of that same student’s courage in the aftermath of a serious auto accident or her battle to overcome a life-threatening disease is more than just fulfilling—it’s heartwarming and inspiring. And in discussing the paths their lives have followed, many of these former students—now my friends—share their faith journeys with me.
I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to share some important lessons with my students, but they have taught me some valuable things, too:
- Don’t judge anything by your first impression. Some students who were “stars” in high school have not had it so easy as adults, and others, who were just beginning to find out who they were, have risen to unexpected heights in their chosen professions.
- You won’t always know the impact what you say and do might have. Occasionally I am surprised at what my students remember. One girl said to me, “I’ll never forget how you hugged all of us on the morning that one of our cheerleaders was killed in an auto accident on the way to school.” I hope that my words and my actions were more often kind than not.
- It’s invigorating to have friends of another generation. Having contact with my “kids” helps keep me engaged with life. When they share the lessons life has taught them across the lunch table, I’m even more thankful to have them in my life.
- Hard work is worth it. Most teachers don’t teach for the money but for the rewards that come from having a positive impact on others. I’m sure my students grew tired at times of having me nag them about meeting deadlines, but they tell me that it was a valuable experience that they’ve used later in life.
- It’s worth growing your prayer life. I have a prayer list from my church and my own family for whom I pray regularly, but I also have a much larger family in my former students. I’ve shared times of grief and times of great joy with them, and when they ask me to pray for them, I am honored.
I’m grateful that the sharing of lessons with my students has been a two-way street. And even though I can’t remember that young freshman’s name who was flummoxed to find himself in a journalism class, I still think of him occasionally, as I do all my former students. I hope that his life has taken him to good places.