A Quote and a Note: Two Lessons I Learned from Teaching

Wherever I go, I keep with me two pieces of paper. A quote clipped from the calendar of my first year of teaching, and a note from a student’s mother.

The quote, by Wendell Berry, says, “A teacher’s major contribution may pop out anonymously in the life of some ex-student’s grandchild.”

The note expresses a mother’s gratitude for making a difference in the life of her son.

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The quote and the note remind me of the two most important lessons I’ve learned in my teaching career:

1. Don’t focus on results.
2. Find the difference.

The Quote

My eighth year of teaching was almost my last. Divorced, discouraged, and disillusioned by life and especially by teaching, I struggled daily to come to work. My marriage crashed and burned. My career seemed headed that way. High hopes of saving the world through music burst into flames of reality. I hadn’t saved a single student. No one rose from their life of poverty through the magic of playing the guitar. No one declared to Simon Cowell that everything they knew about performing they learned from me.

(No joke. I harbored fantasies about Simon personally thanking me for my contribution to music education. And then proposing to me.)

The path I had taken, the one I thought promised security and success, had led to humiliation and heartbreak.

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That’s when I had a brilliant idea.

Quit teaching, move to San Francisco, and become a street musician.

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I made the rounds of downtown Denver open mic nights with my songs, my guitar and my portable piano. It was amazing. The high of being on stage, the immediate recognition, the lights and applause and the rhythm and the house bass player who could accompany my songs as if he had written them with me. It all felt better than anything from the classroom, so I made a plan. I would move to the Haight-Ashbury district, live in one of those community houses where everyone shares meals and a bathroom (that’s a real thing, right?!), and make money playing in the streets and coffee shops of the greatest city in the world.

Thankfully, the universe prevented this brilliant idea from coming to fruition. While I planned my west coast bust, notifications to renew my teaching license periodically popped up in my email. Convinced I was done with the world of education, I ignored these warnings until the day came to renew my license or loose my job.

All of a sudden, that shit was real. Faced with the reality of not teaching, I realized how important it was to me.

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It didn’t matter that I hadn’t made the “difference” I had set out to make. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t saved anyone from the depths with the magical power of music. Teaching was not just a job, it was my identity, one I was about to throw away. San Francisco faded into the fog, and I knew I had to fight to keep the one thing that mattered to me – my career as a teacher.

So, October of 2009 found me trudging into the Department of Education. The lady behind the desk did not even look up as I surrendered my life and the clutched paperwork needed to convince the state of Colorado to let me keep teaching. I wanted to defend myself, to apologize for ever thinking that quitting teaching would be a good idea.

I floated out an hour later, temporary license in hand, with a new perspective on my role as an educator. The quote that, at the time, sat pinned above my desk came back to me with new meaning.

My greatest contribution to teaching may be something I never see. Far from being discouraging, though, this fact gives me freedom to teach without worrying about results.

I don’t teach to save people, or to make a difference, although I try my best to do something good in the lives of the children I encounter. I teach because it is who I was created to be. If I focus on the difference I may or may not be making, those students I may or may not be saving, I will fall into despair. It’s not that I don’t want to touch their lives; I can’t let that be my primary driving force.

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My greatest contribution is out there, but it’s not necessarily for me to witness or experience.

My job is to do the best I can with the children right in front of me, and leave the results up to the universe.

DON’T FOCUS ON RESULTS.

The Note

On the other hand, while I focus on the job required of me from day to day and minute to minute, a difference is sometimes made. The second lesson I’ve learned from teaching is to find that difference.

Here’s my story.

Jared* showed up in the middle of third grade, already traumatized. He sat near the front door, unresponsive, hoodie cinched around his face. His first step to integration was to simply come into the classroom. Every week at music time, he sat in the corner of my room while I invited him to join us. In May, his class sang a group song at the Talent Show. He stood in the wings, not the stage, but also not by the door. Progress.

Fourth grade. More progress. Jared took off his hoodie and integrated with his class for the whole school day. I could see his face for the first time, although I had yet to hear his voice. He continued to sit in the corner. I continued my warm invitations.

Then the miracle happened.

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Each Spring I coordinate with my PE teacher on Drum Fit. Exercise balls sit on top of buckets and students perform choreographed aerobic routines while playing the balls with drum sticks. Not only did Jared participate, he joined the special Drum Fit team I chose to perform in the Talent Show. For a second year in a row, he participated in the show from the wings. We had a extra person take his place during the performance, but he attended every rehearsal. I even saw a smile on his face once when he thought I wasn’t looking. He made friends with others on the team, spoke to me for the first time, shared the heart-wrenching details of his life, his thoughts and worries. It was a wonderful transformation to witness.

In fifth grade, Jared requested to join my after-school choir, as long as he did not sing. By that time, I’d developed a soft spot for this broken child so I agreed. On the first day of choir practice, I assigned him my stage hand and sound guy. He sat silent in the back of the room during rehearsals. At performances, I taught him how to set up the stage, arrange the microphones and work the sound board. He was a natural! At times, I went to take care of some staging detail only to find Jared had already done it.

He came to every rehearsal, every performance, but never sang or spoke a word. As he left for middle school, he shocked me with a gift of homemade cookies.

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Imagine my surprise, then, when I received a thank you card from Jared’s mother the following year. She told how I had made school a safe and pleasant place for her son, how he still sang all of the songs from choir at home. She thanked me for being that special teacher in her son’s life.

Right when I was just doing my job, not worrying about whether or not I was reaching kids, I had touched someone in ways I couldn’t have imagined.

FIND THE DIFFERENCE.

The Lesson

Teaching is hard. Pressures come from every side. Raise test scores. Increase engagement. Motivate students. Respond to individual needs. Go to a meeting. Call parents. Plan lessons from a curriculum that preaches innovation while demanding standardization. Go to another meeting. Fill out paperwork. And more paperwork. By the way, eat your lunch. Go to one more meeting, fill out more paperwork, and somehow have a personal life, your own family, and time to watch the occasional binge-worthy show or even read a novel (Ha!).

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It is easy to get bogged down in this profession. There are days, weeks, and even months when you question yourself and start considering alternative careers (like street musician!). Your influence may not be with the one kid to whom you give your heart and soul. It may not look like the results you are looking for.

But if you take each day, each learning task, each student, one at a time, you will find lives changed because of you.

On the days I feel as if everything I am doing is coming to nothing, I read the quote. On the days when I’m just not reaching that one kid, I pull out the note from Jared’s mother. These small pieces of paper balance me. My thoughts shift to the task or student in front of me, filled with appreciation for the job I am honored to perform each day.

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