February 11th, 2010

Making a Difference


“Teachers shouldn’t expect to make a difference in the life of every student. They don’t and won’t. But making a difference in one life is a powerful motivator. We never forget those students who tell we have, and we are further motivated by those teachers who once made a big difference in our lives.”

Despite having written that a number of years ago now, I still believe it’s true. You never know when your teaching will have this kind of lasting impact; sometimes you don’t find out that it happened until years later; and sometimes you never find out. One of my very favorite colleagues has told me several times about a music teacher to whom he attributes his lifelong love of classical music. He lost track of the teacher only to rediscover him many years later. He was about to make contact—a personal visit and the then elderly teacher passed away. My colleague cannot recount this story without tears, “I never got to tell him what he did for me … never got to say thank you.”

Teaching with the goal of making a difference in a life requires faith—you have to believe it will and is happening even if the credit you deserve is never acknowledged. I think you have to find your way to a place where you are trying to make a difference without expecting to be recognized for all that energy that kind of teaching requires. Maybe the motivation is better sustained by thinking of the commitment as repayment to that teacher (or teachers) who so positively changed your life. Or maybe it’s what Roland Christensen observed some years back: “Like virtue, teaching is its own reward.” It feels good when you know you are doing your best to make a difference.