There are times when teachers see immediate results of their work. Times when a student has that elusive lightbulb moment, or when the student implements a taught skill without prompting. These immediate validations of a teacher’s effort are infrequent at best, and often quite rare. Teaching is a long term process in which positive impact is regularly delayed until years after when the student and teacher have lost contact. Teachers rarely have the chance to understand how their work impacts students in the long term. I recently received an email from a former student that highlighted just how rare it is to hear from a student after they leave my class. The way she describes her life, and the impact of my class, was extremely unexpected. The excerpt from her email below has been edited for length and to remove most personal identifiers.
Hey Mr. McCormick! I just wanted to say thank you so much for what you taught me over the years as my AVID teacher. … the things I learned in your class, YES even/especially AP World have really made an impact on me. Since leaving about midway through sophomore year, I went through the worst of the worst, and became a version of me that I never thought I’d ever become. … I went through the pain of mental, physical, and emotional abuse at that time. As expected, I was in the worst health anybody could imagine.
I decided to leave Washington and move back into my grandparent’s house…. I’ve been here for about 2 months [after about a year of being out of school – GM] and I’m already back in school. I’m going to college and I’m in the medical assisting program, I’m the youngest in my class by many years, but everyone looks to me for help! My note taking skills have been recognized by my instructor and classmates, and I have AVID to thank. I really do look back at all the mistakes I’ve made and thank God everyday that education was always something that I took interest in, even if I lost myself for a while. My family is very proud of me and supports me 100% of the way, I hope to one day become a [physician’s assistant] after a couple of years working as an [medical assistant], and my graduation date is set for May, 2014. Wish me luck! Again, thank you so much for putting up with my nonsense those few years! I love my entire AVID class and I wish them the very best at their last year as [High School] students.
When she left my school in the middle of her junior year, I was incredibly concerned for Carmen. She had been exhibiting unusual behavior and her grades were declining rapidly from an already inconsistent position. When she left school I felt like a failure. I hadn’t reached her. I was unable to get things turned around to help Carmen get back to the student she’d been in earlier years. Over time I stopped thinking about her.
When I received this letter from her I was forced to take stock of my self perception. In a certain way it creates a level of paradox. Most of the time education is an extremely gradual process by which students build on past experiences and integrate new knowledge and skill, thus creating an ever-developing persona. At the same time, however, there exists the potential to create extremely powerful catalytic moments that initiate radical change and have lifelong impact.
I would like to think that I helped teach Carmen the grit and individual determination that helped her build back from setbacks that could have completely derailed her life. While we worked on these kinds of non-cognitive skills in class, she already came to my class equipped in many ways. Carmen’s determination and perseverance are products of a gradual building process in her life.
With Carmen I did not create an appropriate catalytic moment that caused her to take stock of her life. That moment had to come from beyond the classroom, and took her down an extremely difficult path. I was able to set something of a time bomb in her head though. Education acted as a beacon for Carmen. No matter her declining grades, her difficulties, or her questionable choices, Carmen always maintained an unwavering faith in the power of self-improvement through education. I do not know if this was a conscious belief while she was in my class, however, she clearly has that belief now and she can link lessons from my class to her ability to realize her academic goals. As her teacher I was able to support this through my own unwavering belief in her ability to grow and improve. Education provides her with hope that change will come. Combined with her willingness to put in hard work Carmen is seeing her belief become reality. She recently sent me a picture of her quarter grades and the proof is undeniable:
Carmen’s story reminds me that all success is not instant. Most success is not immediate. We do not all take the same path, nor do we need to. Carmen helps maintain my faith in the transformative power of education. She is the American Dream: a child born of immigrant parents who, through hard work and determination, will create for herself a better future.
Stories like hers are why I remain committed to improving our education system at all levels. The work is slow, and change is incremental, but change is possible and objectively small victories are worthy of celebration because they are subjectively deeply meaningful. In the greater picture, one student turning a GED, abuse, and addiction into a degree and work in the medical profession is relatively minor. In the story of Carmen’s family she will be the first to complete any higher education and she will act as an example to her younger siblings and cousins, dramatically impacting their lives. In her most recent email, Carmen told me that she wants to become a paramedic so that she can save lives and said “thank you for caring I don’t really have anybody who does.” The impacts of education are rarely immediately visible, but that does not diminish their value. Maintaining commitment to the educational process requires perseverance, belief, and an appreciation of delayed gratification.