December 16th, 2015

Working to Make a Difference

By:

students in a lecture hall

“When are you going to retire?” “Why are you still working?” These are questions I’m asked regularly. Worried that the question is motivated by signs of diminished mental acuity, I scour old and new writings looking for evidence. Should I stop working? I wonder.

Teaching Professor Blog On a recent flight back to State College I sat next to a Penn State student, a junior accounting and finance major. She sounded like one of those students we’re only too happy to have in class. She talked about her courses, projects, assignments she was working on, her teachers, and how excited she was about her chosen fields.

“And what do you do?” she asked.
“Oh, I work for you,” I replied.
“How so?”
“Well, I work with college profs on ways to teach that help students learn.”
“I’ve had quite a few teachers who could use your help,” she observed. “You know, a good teacher makes such a difference for students. I have this accounting prof who is just fantastic. I leave his class and I am so motivated. I do homework for that class first and I really study for his exams, and not just for the grade; I really want to learn the material.”
“What’s his name?” I asked, and when she told me I felt a big smile crossing my face. “I know him! I helped him when he was a brand-new prof.”

I didn’t tell her that he wasn’t a very good teacher back then. But I remember his commitment to doing better, his openness to suggestions, and his willingness to learn. And now he’s having this kind of impact on a student! I wish I’d had a glass of wine—a toast seemed so in order.

I keep working because I love to teach, and my current students (college faculty) are the best of all students—curious, intrinsically motivated, and willing to make comments, ask questions, do the reading, take notes, and challenge ideas—they are Ivy League learners. Beyond my love of teaching and great students, I keep working because it’s work that matters. Done well, it makes a difference in all the right directions; not done well, it makes a difference in very wrong directions. It’s the kind of work where the stakes are high.

Many years ago I figured out that if you lived for 75 years, that equals 657,000 hours. If you have a student in class three hours a week for 15 weeks, and that student studies your course material six hours a week (I know, a near perfect student), that’s 135 hours of the student’s lifetime. That’s the tiny slice of time you and your content have to make a difference in that student’s life. We’ve had teachers who did; we’ve had students tell us we did. But what a challenge!

It’s 4 a.m. and I’m in bed beside a beagle and a big fellow, both gently snoring. I’m awake, working—mulling over ideas for this post. What’s the best message for the end of another semester and year, for this special season when peace and celebration are possible? What might encourage reflection and offer inspiration? I’m up against the challenge teachers routinely face: finding something in the content with the power to touch and transform during that brief time of connection.

I decide on this message: the importance of what we do course after course, semester after semester, year after year doesn’t change. It’s just as important the first time you teach, the last time, and all those times in between. In the beginning, most of us aspire to make a big difference in lots of students’ lives. After a few years we’re more realistic, puttering along, doing our best not to make a difference in the wrong direction, not making a difference at all, maybe making a little difference, but still believing that what we teach and what students can learn has the power to make a huge difference.

I teach on, hoping to make that big difference, not because I care about glory or legacy, but because it’s work that matters, and I’ve never felt that way about cleaning the house.