May 9th, 2012

Enough Time to Make a Difference in Students’ Lives


It’s that time of the year when students leave us. Some graduate and we celebrate their growth and intellectual accomplishments. We are sorry to see them go. Others cross the stage and their parting is no cause for sweet sorrow. Some leave without ever crossing the stage. And some temporarily leave, returning in the fall or for a summer session.

Most students are in our lives for such a short period of time. I once figured it out. If the student lives to be 80. That’s 4,160 weeks and the student is in your class for 15 of those weeks. That’s .36 (less than four-tenths) of one percent of his time on earth. If the student’s attendance is perfect and you’re seeing her face to face, that’s 45 hours out of the 2,520 hours in those 15 weeks or 1.78% the total time.

Given those numbers it is hard to imagine a teacher having any influence on what a student knows, thinks or comes to believe. And if we take a look at our college transcripts, I’m guessing most of us will see the names of teachers who had little influence on us. Can you see their faces or remember one thing they said during those 15 weeks?

But there are other teachers who grab hold and never let go. The best writing teacher I ever had, a crazy science fiction writer, perches on my shoulder every time I write. “Show it–don’t tell it,” he yells, among other admonitions. He took one of my sentences apart in class, concluding, “We have floated through this cloud of words and not bumped into one bit of substance.” There was my advisor who wondered if I’d ever considered being a college teacher. The thought had never crossed my mind. Would it, if he hadn’t introduced the idea? There was a much admired professor on my dissertation committee who took me aside and said, “You are a really good writer, do you know that?” At the time, I didn’t know and didn’t believe him. It wasn’t something I had ever been told by an English teacher.

On the other side are students; those we remember and the many more we forget. How many do we encounter over a career? And how soon after the course ends have they faded from our conscious awareness? “You don’t know me, do you?” the checkout person at Costco said. I looked closely, “No I don’t.” “I’m Cathy Upton and I took your speech class in 1995.” “Really?” I looked again and then checked my gradebook when I got home. She was right, but I can’t conjure up one thing about her.

Given the many we teach, we do remember a few. Some we remember because they told us we made a difference in their lives. A gift card that accompanied a rose has been pinned on my bulletin board for almost 30 years. The unsigned message says, “You have helped me become a better person.” Others are memorable for what they didn’t know—the student who gave an excellent speech on “Old Timers Disease.” “Clever name,” I said to him afterwards. “Calling Alzheimer’s ‘Old Timers’ Disease.” He looked confused, “No, that’s what it’s called. Everybody in my family calls it that.” Then there was the first student who was smarter than me—why had it never crossed my mind I might have a student with a better brain than mine? Email enables some students to say thank you years later. Like this message I received: “Do you remember me? I was having lots of family problems when I was in your class. We were very poor and you gave me $60 just before Christmas. We call it our 7-Eleven Christmas because I went there the next day and bought things for my brothers and sisters.” And I spent that Christmas wondering if I’d been conned by a student with a good story.

The encounters are brief but full of possibility. We can’t make a difference in every student’s life, and we won’t remember most of them. But we should be prepared, ready to seize the moment, willing to put forth in faith, believing that we have enough time to make a difference and improve a life.