This article first appeared in the Teaching Professor on December 13, 2017. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.
Teachers and students can give each other priceless gifts. “Professor Jones changed my life!” The comment is usually followed by the story of a teacher in love with content, students, and learning. How many times have I told the story of my advisor who was the first person to suggest I could be a college professor? We love to hear and tell these stories because they are remarkable and inspiring. A student and a teacher connect during one small segment of the student’s life, yet through that tiny window of time can blow a gust strong enough to change the direction of that life.
And students gift us with stories that bear witness to life-changing encounters with teachers. I recently read Fred Heppner’s description of the three teachers who changed his life. It’s a lovely reflection, full of wise insights. Teachers who change students’ lives don’t have to be great lecturers. Heppner describes one of his favorites as a “terrible” lecturer, the second was “okay,” and the third used memorized scripts that started and ended with timely precision. That teachers can change lives without giving great lectures doesn’t justify delivering poor ones. But it does point to a part of teaching that transcends methods. When teachers change lives, it’s the human element that inspires, connects, and motivates in transformative ways.
Teachers who change lives aren’t perfect. They don’t do everything right and they certainly don’t change every student’s life. In fact, most teacher aspirations don’t involve changing lives. More mundane goals drive our efforts. We want students to be able to solve problems, evaluate arguments, write clearly, be open-minded, and believe in themselves and in the value of hard work. Most of us consider the semester a success if we see progress in any of these areas.
Even if a teacher did set out to change students’ lives, how would that process work? How would you select the students whose lives you plan to change? And then how would you make it happen? In fact, most of the time, we don’t even see it happening. When we later hear about it (and sometimes we don’t), we’re surprised. We struggle to explain what transpired. Could magic be the apt descriptor?
I am glad there remains some mystery around these life-changing experiences. Otherwise, we’d have a list (empirically generated, of course) of the top 10 things teachers can do to change students’ lives. But any teacher can change a student’s life; shy teachers, old teachers, part-time teachers, those with tenure, and those without. And the change can happen regardless of what you teach, where you teach, or who you teach.
Pete Beidler writes of his encounter with Professor Wayne Booth in freshmen English. “He had a tacky house four blocks from campus. He wore wilted clothes. He owned no car, not even a rusty one. He made us read novels and poetry about love. He was all books and ideas. . . He found a way to let us know that ideas were not just ideas. They change people and nations and worlds. And as for love, Wayne Booth found a way to let us know he could have written that book.” Beidler changed his major to English; Booth influenced that move. And it was Booth who ultimately made Beidler decide to teach. “In ways that neither he nor I knew at the time, Wayne Booth made me a different person, had shown me that teachers have the power to touch human lives.”
What a gift to give to our students, and what a gift for us when a student shares the story of a teacher who helped uncover hidden potential and point a life in a new direction. It’s the season of giving and receiving. Most of what we exchange during the holidays doesn’t last long, maybe a year or so. In my house some of us struggle to remember gifts given and gotten just last year. Few gifts are enduring and fewer still are priceless. But what sometimes happens between a teacher and a student is both. And that’s worth remembering as another year winds down.
My best wishes for holiday season and gratitude for gifting me with your readership.
Heppner, F. (n.d.) “When I Grow Up, I Want to be Just Like My iPad.” Tomorrow’s Professor. Retrieved from
Beidler, P. G. (1986) “Distinguished Teaching on Effective Teaching” (volume 28 in the New Directions for Teaching and Learning series), San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 3-4.