How a Student’s Gratitude Reminds Us of What’s Important in Education

This originally appeared in March 2013 edition of “The Social Studies Professional.”

When I was growing up, on the top of my mother’s dresser, was a copy of a quote that has always resonated with me. It read, “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but suffers the loss of his own soul?” In many ways, I feel this quote appropriately reflects some of the challenges of education today. The heart of education, the soul of education, the very purpose of what drives us as teachers each and every day, reside in the core values of our mission. Social justice, global awareness, and lifelong learning – these are the ideals that are the essence of education. So, what does it profit our educational system and our society if we succumb to the pressures wrought by the politics, money, and special interests that have dominated the educational discourse – but suffer the loss of our educational soul?

A few months ago, I received a letter from a student named Carolyn. It reads, in part: “You taught our class so much, but I feel that the lessons that were not outlined in the curriculum are what have really guided me though high school. You taught us to consider the whole world, how we can affect it, and how it can affect us. You taught us to see things differently and to look at everything in perspective. You taught us to seize the day and get out and experience the world. I value every lesson you taught me. Thank you for always believing in me.” How do we truly measure and quantify the impact teachers have had on Carolyn’s educational experience? Can we adequately do that without losing our collective educational soul? What does it profit us if we excel at testing, data collection, standards, and accountability, but suffer the loss of our own soul – the “art” of teaching, the personalized nature of learning, the affective foundation of this profession?

Teaching is at once a humbling and empowering profession. It is extremely difficult for anyone who has not been a teacher to understand the challenges, joys, heartbreaks, and triumphs experienced by teachers in their daily efforts to cultivate their students’ academic, social, and emotional growth. The personal, emotional nature of our work cannot be underestimated, nor can it be disentangled from our professional identities. Yet, because they often neglect the human element of teaching and learning, external, top-down policies threaten our morale and motivation – indeed, it imperils the very core of who we are and what we do. As a result, we often find ourselves defending our profession against those whose politicized motives are having undue influence on the education reform debate and process. We find ourselves attempting to articulate the incredibly complex dynamics that comprise our professional existence to those who are far removed from the classroom.

In the end, though, it will not be test scores and data points that will comprise the most salient features of our professional identities. Like Carolyn, what will be most meaningful and most memorable are the personal experiences that, collectively, reflect the higher purpose of education and that, even by the smallest measure, have made this world a better place. When students speak of unforgettable teachers who made a positive difference in their lives, they are essentially articulating the same sentiment. What is interesting, however, is that their sense of admiration, respect, and amazement is reciprocated by teachers. We are often in awe of our students as well. We watch our students acquire new knowledge, better comprehend this world of ours, ask more meaningful and serious questions, and truly love learning in its many forms. We admire their determination, their enthusiasm, and their strength of spirit. Perhaps it is because we see in them a reflection of ourselves, of our youth, and of our past that we are proud of their achievements and excited for them as they prepare to embark on ensuing stages of their lives. Our students constantly renew our commitment to education, they reinvigorate us, and they uplift us with the many possibilities of what is yet to come. Upholding the core tenets of education means that we provide sustenance for our collective educational soul, and in so doing, we are better able to nurture our students’ growth. They represent a bright future, and we, as teachers, do our work with such steadfast dedication precisely because we put so much hope in them and what can be.

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