More than three decades later, student recalls teacher’s kindness

University of Georgia education professor Peter Smagorinsky is a regular contributor to the AJC Get Schooled blog.

Today, he shares a lovely essay about a former of student who reached out to him 35 years later to thank him. The man was not thanking Smagorinsky for what he taught him, but what he showed him — kindness, compassion and caring at a tragic point in his life.

By Peter Smagorinsky

“Thank you for becoming a teacher. I’m not sure you even remember this but my mother, 3-year-old brother and I were involved in a car accident that took her life and put me in the hospital at the end of my freshman year. I didn’t return to school until December of the following year. Looking back I was angry, lost and slightly out of control. Even though I wasn’t in any of your classes, you always talked to me asked how I was doing, keep me engaged and most of all held me accountable for my actions. That helped keep me on track and move forward. You were a positive influence on my life and helped me more than you’ll ever know.”

I recently got this note via Facebook from a student I taught in Illinois in about 1980. I share it with some reticence, given it may strike some as self-aggrandizing to start this essay with such a thankful note. I’m sure there are at least a few other students from my past with less generous memories.

A note from a former student reminds a teacher of Maya Angelou's comment, “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.” RALPH BARRERA/ AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Students may not remember what their teachers taught them, but the kindness they showed them.  RALPH BARRERA/ AMERICAN-STATESMAN

As you can imagine, getting this note was an emotional experience for me. I always prided myself on having good technical skills in terms of designing instruction, responding promptly to student work, and doing all the things I was taught to do in my master’s program to promote student learning.

But Jeff, who authored this note, attended to something else entirely. At about the age of 50, what he remembered from when he was 15 was how we talked in the hallways and in the gym after school in the years after I taught him, when he was reeling from the loss of his mother.

Like a lot of kids, he was going through an emotional time. His, I’m sure, was far more traumatic than most; as I wrote him in response, I can’t imagine the pain he was going through at the time.

But adolescence is a rocky emotional time for just about every kid, and young people are still building the resources they need to become resilient in the face of adversity. They really need emotional support from the adults who surround them, but it can be hard to find.

I’m reminded of Maya Angelou’s lovely aphorism: “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.” Notes like Jeff’s help me to understand just how important the caring aspect of teaching is. Even in my late 20s, when I taught Jeff and when my own life was still taking shape in fits and starts, I seem to have understood the technical aspects of teaching, while quite important, are only part of what matters in being a valuable faculty member.

I offer this experience not to promote my own reputation, but to illustrate what I find so tragic about the Arne Duncan era in American education. Helping to console a devastated student might well be the most important thing a teacher does, but it has absolutely no merit in today’s version of accountability. Rather, only the most technical of instructional skills gets counted in a teacher evaluation, and the only skills that matter lead to the narrowest measure of learning, the ability to perform on a standardized test.

It’s hard for me to believe the public is accepting this view of effective schooling. I have no idea of what Jeff’s test scores were like or what I did to influence them, but whatever happened on that front, it’s nothing he remembers many decades later. Rather, it’s that I took a little time whenever I saw him to ask him how he was doing and encourage him to persevere.

In doing so, I was not uncommon. My fellow teachers loved their students as people, and many did what I did for Jeff routinely. We loved what we did as subject-matter teachers as well, but never thought we were teaching interchangeable humanoid modules. Rather, we were oriented to knowing who they were and helping them to become who they might be. In spite of what Arne Duncan has imposed on the profession, many of today’s teachers are similarly concerned with kids’ development into healthy and happy adults.

Doing so requires more than technical instructional skills. It requires us to care for the kids in terms of their many emotional needs, in some cases, needs not being well met at home because their parents are gone so much of the time. To me, this broad caring disposition by teachers toward their students is what makes people think of schools as communities, and what makes people look back on school experiences with strong, positive feelings.

Dear Readers, let me pose this question to you: What do you remember about being in school? What lingers for you after you’ve forgotten the dates and names and rivers you memorized for tests? What benefitted you as you moved out into your life?

And then ask: What sort of memories will your own children have of an education predicated on a technical-only version of accountability that makes caring about them irrelevant in the minds of those in charge?

If you are worried about what the answer might be to this last question, then I hope you begin talking with your neighbors, school administrators, and government representatives about what needs to change for school to provide the next generation of students with something more than what they’re now getting when the only thing that matters is what can be reduced to numbers.

 

Reader Comments 0

24 comments
eulb
eulb

Maureen, thanks for publishing this piece.  It nudged me to send a note to a favorite teacher from long ago.

heyteacher
heyteacher

This is so true -- I often receive notes years after students have graduated about how much they appreciated the way I treated them -- not what I taught them. 

Lee_CPA2
Lee_CPA2

Looking through these blogs, I see only a fraction of responses as compared to the past.

Tell me again AJC, how's the "premium subscription" stunt working out for you?

MaureenDowney
MaureenDowney moderator

@Lee_CPA2 Comments are down behind the pay wall, but unique page views are doing well. Also, a lot more commenting and readers on AJC Get Schooled Facebook. And a lot more folks reading on mobile devices, which is apparently the future. Commenting does not equate with readership. (A video I posted led mobile views earlier in the week, despite only a few comments.)


Lee_CPA2
Lee_CPA2

The passage of time has dimmed most of the memories from school.  Still remember some snippets, some good, some bad.

Interestingly, most of the "good" memories are from outside the classroom - cookouts, field trips, clubs, sports, etc.  I guess that is to be expected.

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@Lee_CPA2 

You are fortunate that you evidently had no personal or family problems that caused you to seek the counsel and support of a teacher at school. You would remember that if you did.

Lee_CPA2
Lee_CPA2

@OriginalProf @Lee_CPA2

You mean like family violence, divorce of parents, death of best friend / classmate, etc?  Check, check, and check.  Never sought the counsel or support of a teacher though.  Never was much of a "touchy, feely" guy.

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@Lee_CPA2 @OriginalProf 

Not necessarily that extreme. But often students need to talk to a teacher with adult experience who can keep the mouth zipped. In K-12, it could be bullying or serious illness of a family member. Over the years, I've had several college students come to me with binge-drinking problems, and one being stalked by her ex-boyfriend, in addition to what I noted earlier. To be there when needed is a very gratifying part of teaching.  We can never be replaced by computers.

MotocrossSurvivor
MotocrossSurvivor

"" I’m reminded of Maya Angelou’s lovely aphorism: “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.”"


This is such a BS quote.  What IS important is what a person says, but even MORE important what they do.  How they make you feel?  Very subjective thing.  A morally corrupt person can make another morally corrupt  person feel great.

MotocrossSurvivor
MotocrossSurvivor

Just wondering how much compassion, caring and kindness he shows toward the thousands of Palestinian kids Israel has murdered and maimed and the others left mentally damaged for life....with Israel "defending itself" while stealing land and terrorizing the natives.

billt50
billt50

I was reminded of my 6th grade teacher 53 years ago, Ms Murphy. My Mom and Pop died when they and I were young. I was mad and sad but Ms Murphy acted like a mentor/teacher/parent who was so kind but demanding at the same time. I needed both. I hope we all have at least one fond memory of a teacher or a business colleague who provided guidance.

CSpinks
CSpinks

Why teachers* teach.


* A teacher is one who has a passion for helping kids 

learn as opposed to a public school employee 

  who occupies a LEA teaching position   but 

  whose passion is limited to long Summer vacations.

Travelfish
Travelfish

As in every Get Schooled article by Smagorinsky, parents are ridiculed for wanting choices or basic accountability in their neighborhood public school. And a touching story quickly becomes a prop on which teachers' union talking points are hung.

But parents who can't afford to send their kids to the private schools his own kids benefitted from are unlikely to be intimidated.

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

@Travelfish 

Wow, that is what you got out of Prof. Smagorinsky's article?  It's like you two are living on two different planets.
;-)

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

@Travelfish 

Nope.  I want to reform traditional public education for the better, and I spent my career trying to do so.  Moreover, I - like you and every other human being - "contain multitudes." (Walt Whitman*) Your present thoughts, expressed, have limited the Professor's vision to the mundane. His vision actually touches the eternal. 


*Walt Whitman, "Song of Myself, # 51":

http://www.whitmanarchive.org/published/LG/1891/poems/27

Travelfish
Travelfish

Wow. No decaf at the union hall?

CSpinks
CSpinks

@Travelfish I would hope that no parent would allow him-/herself to be intimidated in his/her pursuit of excellent educational opportunities for his/her child. But I also remember what Mr. Holder had to say about our relationship to courage and appreciate its validity.

Travelfish
Travelfish

Let's not pretend. You're likewise a member of the dwindling anti-reform crowd.

Travelfish
Travelfish

Except for the NEA (and the AFT). Google "NEA" and "union 101" and get schooled!

Falcaints
Falcaints

@Travelfish Once again for the ignorant.  Teachers unions are "forbidden" under Ga. state law.  We have no collective bargaining rights, which is the only true power a union has.  This state has advisory committees.  If they donate to other groups, then so be it.  I know you need a "bogeyman" to blame, but give the union thing a rest.

Travelfish
Travelfish

So you know better than the NEA itself (and the Internal Revenue Service!) what that union's status is. LOL.

The Democrat Party sure knows where the money's coming from.

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

One of the blessings of teaching, no matter whether the level is kindergarten or college, is being there when the student really needs personal help. I don't think that will change even in a system in which "education [is] predicated on a technical-only version of accountability."  If the student remembers it gratefully afterward, so does the teacher for being the one the student has asked for help. 

I'm retired, so have had years enough to remember such moments: when a student's husband had just been fired from a job he had held 16 years; when a student had just been diagnosed with breast cancer; when a student was just on the brink of a nervous breakdown in class...and others. And they came to their teacher, me, who advised some but mainly just listened. This will always be part of teaching, no matter what technicalities are introduced.

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

"I’m reminded of Maya Angelou’s lovely aphorism: 'People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.' ”

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

That is the gift of teaching which those who push the business model in education will never understand. Virtual instructors cannot do for a student what you had done for this student through your intuitive, in-the-moment understanding of his needs which were greater than the purely academic.  There is a reason that that 15 year old remembered you from 35 years ago, even though you did not actually teach him in a subject.  Your kindness and sensitivity to his deepest needs fostered in him a life-altering change for the better.  That was a profound gift.  That will never be forgotten.  Thank you for taking the risk of putting his remarks to you on Facebook and for sharing them here.  Here's my risk:  Imo, what you did was sharing God in you, which was received by him.  Beautiful.