Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Sun, 20 Sep 1998 17:56:00 -0400 (EDT)
Random Thought: Do Teachers Matter?

Well, here I am trying to dry off and set my thoughts down before my Susan awakes and enlists me to help her get things ready for our holiday meal tonight. Last week we had our one day of autumn. This morning it's back to normal. It was humid; it was foggy and misty and drizzly. Slogging through honey would have been easier. The warm water was pouring from by eyebrows like the overflow from a stuffed roof gutter. My eyes stung. I needed wipers on my glasses. My shoes were once again mobile puddles. It was not what I would call a good walk. To tell you the truth, I really didin't want to be out there this morning. I wasn't really in the mood to brave that thick, gooey air. I was achy; I was stiff. My shoes felt like cement blocks. Each step was almost a dragging agony in slow motion. Finally, about half way through the route, I asked myself, "Why the hell am I doing this at 5 o'clock in the morning?" Was it a futile antidote to my Susan's delicious meals for the Jewish holidays that always threatens that surely will take all of us at the table into a brisket overdose, induce a noodle kugel shock syndrome, lapsing us into a food coma, and requiring us to spend weeks of recovering from a caloric haze? Was it a thing about struggling to stay young as the years add up? Was it a meditative thing to keep my soul on a fitness program no less than my body? Was it a dedicated neither rain nor sleet thing? Was it an uneasiness with breaking my routine as if I didn't trust the strength of my comittment?. Was it to model a "if I can you can" for Susan to stay on her physical fitness program. Was it just because of the emotional and physical high I have at the end of a walk, good or bad. Was it an example of self-discipline? Was it plain habit. Was it just plain stupid? Why, why, why.. And you know what? I couldn't come up with a simple answer. I found I was too complicated and complex of a person, as we all are, for any one reason to suffice why I was putting myself through this water torture on this morning.

Then, I started thinking about a discussion concerning student attitudes in which I have been embroiled on one discussion list for at least a week. There were a couple of positions that really troubled me. One professor said that: there isn't really very much anyone of us can do to affect students' attitudes. The another professor loudly absolved himself and all in academia of any responsibility for students learning. They made it sound so simple, like they had discovered Newton's Law of Parsimony as it applied to education: Teachers don't matter

Well, do they? Do I? It's not a pleasant thought. Yet, in a way, this an easy question to answer: Do teachers matter? Well, yes. Are they the only ones who matter? Well, no. Do parents matter. Certainly. Do friends matter? Well, of course. Is there such a thing as temperament? Naturally. Is there such a thing as outside influences? Sure.

Here are three harder questions: Why are so many of us so desperate to find the single element that explains why students act the way they do and turn out the way they do? Why do we want so much for students to be identical? Why do we so often find it so easily to say, "It's their responsibility, not ours." and then bemoan the fact that we are not given credit and accorded appreciation that we feel we deserve?

Oops. Here comes my angel. Gotta boogie, as my son would say. Get back to this later.....

It's now 5:00 p.m. Guests will be here in 90 minutes. All day, I've been following orders to get ready for a houseful of people: polishing silver, getting things down, moving the chairs, getting the dishes and glasses out. When I yelled, "enough already. I want to watch some football" and put my foot down, my darling Susan came over, smiled, gave me a soft, loving kiss, (I knew I was in trouble) and put her foot down on top of mine. So, knowing not to "mess with the moma," I continued with my chores: sweeping the floors, vaccuuming, washing dishes, putting stuff away, cutting flowers for a centerpiece. Put a Tootsie Pop on each plate to wish everyone sweetness for the coming New Year. Unique and untraditional I know. Now I'm back. I've got a few minutes.....

Let's see. As a teacher, I have noticed that there is the larger debate about teaching in which people both in and outside academia engage at fairly regular intervals. Actually, I don't know whether it is really a debate as it is commercial or professional hype or fad. Maybe it's a reflection of someone trying to market the findings of their research and put a notch in their resume or a company trying to push its book or a renting of clothes and beating breasts at threatening change that marks what I think is sometimes our rather adolescent preoccupation with our jobs as teachers and adults. We always seem to be ready to engage in yet another round of astonished or agonized exchange about students and parents and teachers and society--what is cause and what is effect--who is at fault-- as if there exists that all-encompassing, deterministic, simplifying, manageable, intelligible, unified law of human behavior that could reduce human multiplicity and complexity to the ultimate singularity and simplicity--and sap out the wondrous and mysterious uniqueness from each of us. Maybe, as a sidebar, to be fair, it is also a sign of a struggle to wrestle to make manageable what seems to be paralyzing too big to handle; maybe it is an attempt to provide a sense of mastery over a system that appears to be the master..

Yet the paradox, maybe the hypocrisy, is that when most of us look at our own lives, we look at something we recognize as anything but simple. We always emphasize a combination of three factors: the influence for better or worse of others, our own choices based on our character weaknesses and strengths, and the luck of the draw. I know I do. Let's be honest. Too many of us say that we can't have an impact on students or that we are not responsible for their learning. Yet, we turn around and talk of the impact others had on us. You can't have it both ways. We know, we understand, that we didn't get wherever it is we are on our own, that there were others to help, influence, guide, direct us on whatever road we have walked, that there were others who helped us pull up our bootstraps, that we were not isolated islands and completely self-made, that we were shaped by our parents, step-parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters, step-brothers and step-sisters, homes, heredity, culture, schools, churches, synagogues, mosques, friends, teachers, professors -- and by their remarkably complex and often mysterious and magical and elaborate interplays. We are shaped by what we are told to be and not to be, by what we are told to do and not do, by people who reach out and don't reach out, by people who cared about you or didn't, by people who loved you or abused you, by people who touch us and don't, by good luck and bad, by the stage we happen to be in life, by the times in which we happen to live and by the place.

When we tell our own stories, each episode hinges on a chance meeting with someone else, maybe on a debt to a teacher who turned you around or maybe on a harsh memory of a teacher who turned you off, on a professor who reached out and took you under his/her wing or one who remained distant and aloof, on a coach who wouldn't give up on you or one who was interested only in winning or didn't, on someone who applauded you or on someone who berated you, on a janitor who read you the riot act, on an employer who took a chance and hired your or who fired you without giving you a second chance, and on and on and on. Almost all of us understand this.

There is a danger, then, in that perceived "the students are totally responsible for their learning" or "I can't have much of an impact." Too many of us say we should keep our hands in our pockets while we reach for some simpler disengaged recipe, some single distancing ingredient. Do you show love to a student, talk to a student, if you do not believe it will guarantee success in that student's immediate life later in that student's life? Why should you reach out, if you are convinced it will do no good or it's not your job? How can your spirit be strong if you believe that your impact is weak? If you don't believe a thought or an emotion is a powerful influence, how do you stop from quitting, from getting burnt out, from letting your dream fade, from letting your love of teaching weaken, from letting the fire go cold.? If you don't see how you influence a student, how can you take responsibility or be held responsible or even act responsibly for what goes on in class? If you can't see that you are one of the important, ingredients of genes, chromosomes, family, teachers, friends, culture, experience, environment-- and luck--that is mixed up into a unique recipe that makes for that individual student, when you come up against the towering mountain, why will you search for a pass around it or find a trail over it, or use the tools to tunnel under it? As I told someone during that virtual discussion, if I don't believe I can better the future by confidently reaching out to all students, one unique person at a time whomever they may be and help them reach out to themselves, or care to make the attempt, I'll probably not step up and assume the responsibility for struggling to make it so; if I assume that there's no hope in a student, I will have guaranteed that I will act as if there is no hope, and there will be no hope. But, if I assume that there is opportunity to change things, there's a chance I just may help to make for a better world.

When we throw up our hands in exasperation, woefully proclaiming, "I care about students but I can't do anything about," we accept an awful lot of mythology. The best of it is for so many of us to identify ourselves with students while we look upon ourselves as some higher order of being, for so many of us to think that it is enough to utter an "I care" about the students whom too many of us carelessly diminish with our ridicule and denunciation, for too many of us to see ourselves as persons with a caring heart and noble motivations while exhibiting less than noble thoughts and engaging in less than noble actions, for so many of us to possess noble aspirations which wind up as something else because we are imperfect humans.

For those who wish to believe that we teachers don't matter, while everyone does, we alone cannot influence a student's life, they look right past the joy of teaching, the comedy and the drama of it, the joy and sorrow of it, the tragedy and blessing of it, the agony and ecstasy in it, the challenge and reward in it, the power in it, the all-consuming interest and excitement, and above all, the glory of it. I have had moments of intense identification (Yes!"); I have had moments of shock ("what?"); I have had moments of deep disappointment ("damn!"); I have moments that have sent me soaring ('Wow!"); I have moments of bewilderment ("How can I?"). But, I have never had moments of distance and disengagement and disinterest.

I know that when we teach, like it or not, wanting to are not, we are adding chapters, or maybe just a page, or even only a sentence to that continuing a story of a person's life. We don't have total control over the plot and we may not get to finish that story, but it is a story that cannot be completely written without us. We do have an influence on whether those words in that person's story glow or are dark. And, that matters.

Make it a good day. 


Louis Schmier           
Department of History    
Valdosta State University
Valdosta, GA  31698                        /~\    /\ /\
912-333-5947                       /^\    /   \  /  /~ \     /~\__/\
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                          -_~     /  "If you want to climb mountains, \ /^\
                             _ _ /      don't practice on mole hills" -\____

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