Successful Teaching and The Ripple Effect


Too often we get caught in the moment.

I’m not talking about losing oneself selfishly.  You know, the kind of decision that leaves you sick the next morning or regretting the conversation that happened the night before.  Yes, it happens.  Certainly has happened and still happens in my life.

I’m talking about getting lost and forgetting the whole point.

If you’re in the people business of teaching, counseling, social work… any business in which people are the focus… so often our energy and concern is spent on the minute. We forget the greater objective.

Lately I’ve been asking what effect do I as a teacher have on my students’ lives?

We are often given an impossible task. Fix what others can’t. Repair what has been broken by years of insensitivity at home. Successfully help a child regardless of their challenges that take years to get the bottom of – and we aren’t given that kind of time.

And we believe we can overcome the insurmountable.  We can do the impossible. Maybe not astronaut or fighter pilot level of confidence, but we’re in the business of changing lives. We’ll put ourselves out there day after day knowing it’s important work. It may not be life and death work, but it ain’t sellin’ widgets either.

As a teacher I have had some frustrating days. The type of day that ends in exasperation. The kind that makes you throw up your hands and wonder where did it all go wrong?

I hate those days.

It’s the kind of day in which you yearn for a time machine to take you back and start over. Yes, teachers want a do-over… perhaps everyone else just jumps into the machine and goes back to a simpler, happier, easier time… nope, teachers want a do-over.

I know that every job has those moments regardless of the size of your cubicle, office or company car. I just think that if the bottom dollar is involved versus a human’s welfare, it’s a different conversation.

My friend Will shares the story of the pig and the farmer. Perhaps you’ve heard it.

Each day the farmer gets up early, which we of course know that’s what farmers do, and he mixes that slop in the ol’ pail.  Trudges out to the pigpen, splattered coveralls on and feeds those squealing little piglets.

He knows that all the cold mornings with boots covered in sludge will result in a payoff. When the days get shorter and the temperature falls, it will indeed be time for ham, sausage and bacon.  Throw a rib on the grill and you can just about taste the goodness.

This story I now tell to my students.

I tell them that teachers have a similar day of reckoning.  Every day we prod with questions and motivate with support.  We start the year building trust from the first minute students arrive knowing that without it, learning just won’t happen.

We tell jokes to brighten a student’s day.  We get stern when classroom management requires it. We motivate countless ways – whether treasure chests or lunch with the teacher is the reward. We console when there’s an injury on the playground and counsel when friends stop being kind.

And then I tell them why. We want a return on our investment too. We’re not up at the front of the room because we enjoy the performance, we enjoy the outcome – their learning.

And then to their surprise I tell them them that I’m not talking about learning objectives spelled out on the state’s department of education website. I’m not talking about them just doing well on SOLs.

I’m talking about life lessons.

Math is important – you gotta know if you’ve got enough money to pay the bills or buy the popcorn when you’re on a date. Writing leads to an application being filled out well and forget passing the driver’s test without being able to read. This however does not make the warm fuzzies happen.

Last year I had a tough class.

Lots of drama resulting in lots of energy spent on resolving issues that had nothing to do with students learning. If I felt that I was making inroads in those conversations, I would feel better about all the efforts I attempted. I just don’t feel better. I was frustrated.

And then the standards of learning scores were presented to me a few weeks after my students sat before their computers and punched in what I hoped would be the right answer. I admit it, I was stressed. I wanted them to do well, but not for me.

I wanted them to be successful and prove to themselves that they could succeed even though it was tough.  I wanted them to stand up from those computers realizing that they could overcome the challenges placed before them.

Those scores were good it turned out. A few didn’t do as well as I would have liked and their results would cause me to rethink how I had taught a lesson or ponder what else I could have done to increase the score.

Administration was happy. There were smiles and congratulations given.

Was I happy with the scores? I was relieved, but I wouldn’t say happy.  My assistant principal asked me why I wasn’t overjoyed to which I responded with this:

“If my students leave my classroom being better people than when they arrived… that’s what would make me happy. A score on a test is important, but that’s not why I became a teacher.”

I know that we will not know what far reaching effect our influence has had on those we teach. For those of us who stand in front of the classroom, there will undoubtedly be students who will vaguely remember all of our efforts.

There will, however, also be others.  Just like you and I remember the odd conversation or interesting experience we may have had years or decades ago, so will they. We cannot know what specific efforts result in an experience recalled years later, yet it will undoubtedly occur.

And then there is the ripple effect. This inspires me even more so.

Just like the stone that leaves ever expanding ripples as it touches the water, we too leave memories in whose lives we touch.

Now imagine if what we have set into motion to be recalled later will be repeated by them to the benefit of others.  How far reaching might our words that we share today be?

If you have shared with others how someone has treated you then you have participated in continuing to allow that experience to effect others.

Imagine if the story you told was one filled with love and care, a desire to make someone laugh, brighten up a day, or motivate someone to succeed when they thought they couldn’t. What if it was so great of a story that others couldn’t help but share it with their friends, and then they shared it with their friends…

If we can impart that kind of feeling in those people that we work with in our professions. If I can instill a positive memory that changes a person for the better or perhaps might instill within them to care for others as I have tried to do. If my students leave my classroom better than when they arrived… then that is what makes me happy.

And that is when I feel as if I have been a successful teacher.

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