Monday, April 11, 2011

Influencing students

This past weekend I had a rather unique experience, so I am going to write about that instead of trying to connect with P.J,’s last entry. There may be some overlap, but it is purely conicidental.

I intend to reflect on an amazing experience I had yesterday. One of my former students, Elliot Damashek, was honored by Stanford University for being in the top 5% of the engineering students in this year’s graduating class. All such students are awarded the Frederick Terman Award. Each of the twenty-one recipients invited a Stanford Professor and a high school teacher to a luncheon and awards ceremony at Stanford. Yes, that means they flew people from all over the world, including Bombay and Malaysia, to Palo Alto for this award. I was honored to be selected by Elliot as a teacher who influenced him during his high school years.

First, it is rare and remarkable that a University is willing to spend this much time and effort, as well as money, to honor secondary school teachers. All of us were thankful to Stanford for doing this, and we all returned home proud of our work and eager to continue doing what we can to help students reach their potential.

All sixty three participants said a few words. The professors introduced the students, and uniformly praised their work ethic and intelligence. But after those two qualities were extolled, each student emerged as an individual, with strengths and perhaps some weaknesses that were unique to them. And each of them had accomplished amazing things, beyond grades earned.

Then the students introduced the teachers, and it became clear that many of the students believed that they were successful at Stanford because of the influence this particular teacher had on their lives. Rarely was that influence focused on content taught. It was always about the concern the teacher had shown for students, and for the speaker in particular. The teachers were not all math and science teachers, either. There were philosophy, government, history, Latin teachers—and a shop teacher—among those mentioned. One woman was a middle school math teacher. All of the stories made me proud to be a teacher.

I realized that sometimes society thinks that the “gifted” will take care of themselves. Anyone can be a successful teacher to “smart, motivated kids”. I agree it is a different task to reach these students than to reach the under-motivated, recalcitrant students, but it is no less important and not any easier to reach the high-acheivers; it is just different.

These twenty-one students are going to change the world one way or another. They are clever, committed, and motivated. Most of them are planning on working in areas that need attention. Some have already created products that meet the needs of society. They will cure diseases, create healthier food, find ways to protect the environment, work to create peaceful, safe environments.

At least: that is what I heard those twenty-one students talking about yesterday. It was exhilarating to meet these young men and women who are dedicated to using their talents to make the world a better place. And I am glad that I had the chance to be part of the life of one of those students.

The work teachers do with each and every student is important, each in its own way. Our influence is not so much on the specific content we teach, but on the attitudes we pass along to our students, the way we treat them and the way they see us treat everyone else, and the things they know that we value. They know our values because they watch us interact with their classmates over a long period of time. And what we do makes a big difference. Perhaps more than we ever know. These students talked about the character of their teachers, not how well organized they were, or how carefully planned their lessons were.