My son Ed has been a high school English teacher for 28 years — five years more than I have been a college instructor. Early in his career, when I was still working as a magazine editor, he invited me to guest teach in his class.
It was eye-opening. For the first time, I experienced how challenging it was to engage a group of teenage students. But more importantly, I got to see how good a teacher he is and how devoted his students seemed to be to him.
His students were also curious about his life. At the end of the class he let students ask any questions of me or Nancy, my wife and Ed’s mother, who was also a guest. One young woman asked Nancy: “So he was your little boy?” The spark of recognition that he too had been a child once like them, somebody’s little boy, made her and others in the class smile.
I bring the experience up because it was that day Ed answered my question of how he knew he was reaching his students. He told us he didn’t know for certain but figured that if even one thing he taught throughout the term stuck with a student long after the class was over, he should count it a success. Many of his students stay in touch with him years after studying with him. He can count many successes.
Now that I have been teaching for 23 years, I have embraced the idea that while I work hard to teach specific stuff to specific groups of students, I never know what will stick. It turns out that sometimes small successes happen with those who are not even in a class with me.
Last June, I received an email from a student. “Early during Fall semester,” he wrote, he was walking to someone else’s class when he happened to notice a quote I keep taped to my office door. It’s from poet Mary Oliver’s “The Summer Day”: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
“The more I thought about it, the more courage I got to do things I wanted to do and be rather than what my environment was telling me to do,” he wrote. "In a lot of ways, it defined how I used my time at [school] and what I want to do from here on in my life.”
He ended by thanking me for having inspired him. My first impulse was to respond by telling him that I hadn’t inspired him, it was Oliver’s words that had. But I had chosen that quote and a few others to place on my door, hoping students or others on campus might find them useful. It was my son Ed who inspired me to do whatever I could, inside the classroom or out, to try to reach students in any way.
Instead of brushing off the compliment from the student, I responded by thanking him. And now I will remind Ed of how much his passing comment early on in his teaching career and before mine began has influenced the way I try to teach. When someone gives us something that has a lasting impact long beyond its origin, it only seems the right thing to do.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice," is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues.
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