When I was a school administrator, one of the interview questions I always asked prospective employees was, “Why do you want to be a teacher?” The most common response: “I want to make a difference in the lives of my students.”
Obviously, this is the response I wanted…I mean, who wants a teacher who wants anything less?
We go into this line of work with grand expectations that we will be able to dramatically change the life trajectory of every child who enters our classrooms. Sometimes the difference we bring about is monumental. More often, however, there are many little differences that we never anticipated.
The truth is that, most of the time, we never really know how we affected a kid’s life while he sat in our classroom. We can only hope that we planted some seed that helped each child to grow up to be a successful adult.
I have learned that the things I say and the things I do in my day to day casual interactions with kids have made more of an impact than any well-planned lesson. The way I treat a child, the way I empathize with a child, the way I comfort a child stays with that child longer than any essay assigned or test administered.
This truth was affirmed for me this summer in the comments of five former students from five different periods in my 37-year career.
Brandon, my physical therapist this past June, was a ten-year-old sitting in my fifth grade class 24 years ago. He informed me during my first visit to his office that he had earned his doctorate degree and added, “You had a part in that…” Here, was a grown man who was a little boy sitting before me a quarter of a century ago now giving me credit for helping him become a successful person.
Eric, was a thirteen-year-old at the same school about a decade later. By then, I had been promoted as the assistant principal. Now, a fellow teacher working across the hall from me, he asked, “Do you remember when I was sent to your office, Mr. Ramsey?” I could not remember him ever even being in trouble.
“They sent me to you because I was fighting,” he continued.
I asked, “Did I yell at you?”
“No,” he replied. “My shirt was ripped, and all you said was ‘nice shirt!’”
In 2006, I was transferred to another school in our district. I made it my personal mission to get to know every kid on campus. I was in every classroom every day and interacted with students all day long. Who knows where all of those words landed…
This summer – thirteen years later – I received a message from a teacher who had spoken with one of those students from that school. Dane told her that “Mr. Ramsey was the best person I ever dealt with in school. He even helped me with lunch money.”
In 2008, I was transferred to yet another school. One of the “frequent flyers” in my office was Hunter who spent many afternoons being disciplined for misbehaving in class or on the playground. The boy at least had a conscience, as evidenced by the many tears shed during our sessions together.
A few days ago, I visited the local bagel shop. I was giving my order to the cashier and noticed Hunter – now 22 – with his back turned as he prepared the orders listed on his screen. He turned to face me with a grin. “I thought that was you!” he exclaimed. “I recognized your voice! Lord knows I heard it enough as a kid!”
“Uh,” I replied, “we won’t go there!” He grinned again and skipped over the two orders before mine to fix my food first. Then he shook my hand and wished me a good day. On my way to the door, I heard him say to his coworker, “That was my assistant principal!”
I retired in May, 2013 but returned the very next fall as a fifth grade teacher at the same school. Gabe was a squeaky little fifth grader in my class that year. The previous year, I had helped him out when another student was bullying him on the bus.
At one point, Gabe was suffering from stomach issues and was admitted to the children’s hospital. I visited him one evening during his stay and spent about an hour talking to him and to his father.
Last week – six years later – I received a call from Gabe – no longer squeaky – who reminded me that, when I had visited him in the hospital, I had also brought along a “giant pack of homework.” He laughed and then continued. “I just wanted to reach out, Mr. Ramsey, and see how you’re doing because I just want to let you know you were the big help of my life, and I appreciate everything you’ve done for me.”
I want to make a difference in the lives of my students.
I am pleasantly surprised to discover how many little differences I have indeed made over the years…