What Do We Accomplish?

A few years ago a dear friend of mine died at the age of 95. When he was a young man, he worked in the Massachusetts area in construction. He once told me that on many days they would finish their work and step back and someone would speak out in pride “Look at what we accomplished today.”

That has to be a great feeling. You put in a hard and full day of work and at the end of the day you see that you have created something tangible from your labors, something you can be proud of right then. The world is different because of what you did.

I have always thought that was one of the most difficult parts of being a teacher. At the end of the day, it is hard to see what (if anything) we have accomplished.

Oh, sure, we all know that we are changing lives. We all know that we are making a difference. Is that enough to keep us moving forward? At the end of the day, whether we did a great job or a lousy one, things look about the same.

If you are a baker, at the end of the day you can point to the lovely wedding cake you created. If you are a carpenter, you can hold up a table or chair and say “I made this myself.”

But, at the end of a day, your students walk out of the room looking exactly like they did when they first walked in (maybe a little sleepier).

I think this is one of the reasons that teachers sometimes become mediocre. The results seem the same regardless of their efforts. They don’t get the positive reinforcement for their work that comes from seeing a tangible output. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that I believe this has had negative consequences for the U. S. as it has morphed from a manufacturing economy to a service economy.

I was reminded of this last Friday evening when I went to a reception held at our school in connection with the 2011 Reunion. I had the pleasure of talking with former students from 1986, 1991, 1996, 2001, and 2006. Sure, we reminisced about “the good old days” when they were college students. But, more importantly, they told me all about their lives since graduation – the careers they have fashioned, the jobs they have worked, the graduate programs they have attended. For me, it was a moment to see the tangible evidence of my work as a teacher. My influence on most of them had been slight. In jest, I usually take credit for everything they accomplish. But, in truth, I’m just happy to have been any influence at all. They have fashioned wonderful adult lives and they have gone out and made their own difference in the world. I’m pleased that I was able to give them a push while they were in college.

I left the reunion just so proud to be a teacher.

So, if you have been feeling down about your role as a teacher, perhaps you need to find out when the next reunion is slated and plan to attend. Mixing with some of the students whom you have worked with over the years might just be the reminder of what you are accomplishing that you really need to keep energized.

I once compared teaching to playing the role of Johnny Appleseed. You plant seeds and hope that 5, 10, or 20 years down the road those seeds will bear fruit. Maybe it is time to go to a reunion and see what those seeds you helped plant have managed to accomplish.

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