What’s at the heart of being a teacher? Here it is:
A student turns in her final exam and I wish her a great summer. She smiles and makes a jesting request for a certain grade.
I chuckle and think, who am I, Santa Claus? You earn a grade; I don’t give it to you. I help show you how to figure it out for yourself, is all. You do the rest.
And when you do, I’ll let you take all the credit.
Each year as April becomes May, our attentions turn to those pursuing an education and those spring ceremonies where all their efforts and sacrifice are rewarded.
They wear funny flat hats and long gowns, symbols instantly recognized for nearly 700 years as signifying education in Western civilization — and all the other courses, too.
This is my fifth year teaching a class at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. I never thought I had it in me to do it, but while I was at a bookstore several years ago, there shopping as well was the associate dean, who had a class available.
Four weeks later I was trying to figure out how to lower the classroom’s projection screen to show something on it. Today I’m so grateful I was at that bookstore.
One of the obvious rewards of teaching comes from seeing the light bulbs going off over students’ heads. But what I didn’t expect is how much you care about their dreams and goals, how you want them to succeed as much as they do.
You want to tell them about all the things you tried in your profession but failed at, so that they don’t do them, and all the things you tried that worked that you hope they do.
Teaching has taught me more surprising things.
Classrooms are a microcosm of life, most every personality and motivation boiled down into a sample set of a few dozen young people sitting there facing the whiteboard each term.
In nearly every row you’ll find energetic talkers and wallflowers, as well as brave souls who dare to voice an unusual viewpoint because they’re trying to learn something by bouncing it off you.
Some are naturally gifted and some have to achieve through diligence and effort. You see hard workers and game players, the sincere who want to know how to succeed as well as the frustrated or uninspired who just want to find the two points between which they can draw a straight line and move on with life.
But just as in life, you will meet some whom you know have what it takes to be among the best. What these likely never know is how much of an honor it is to teach them.
And just as in life, you will meet some who struggle for every point and will probably never win academic honors, but show in each of those arduous days how much they want the prize of a degree and a career. Likewise, they likely never know how much of an honor it is to teach them.
I’ve had the privilege of meeting the parents of many of them at receptions after graduation ceremonies. In virtually every case, the values of these people and the interest they showed in their sons’ and daughters’ education was evident in the smiling young person standing with them wearing that gown and mortarboard.
On Friday our school will hold its spring commencement ceremony where once again I’ll applaud as my students cross the stage and receive their diplomas.
Nothing lightens the burden of the passing of years better than to spend it celebrating the triumphs of young people ready to use their knowledge, energies and talents to do what you’ve done, only better. That’s why I’m marking my birthday Friday evening attending that ceremony.
Once in a while I hear from a graduate who has started his or her career somewhere across the country. He or she will say they discovered that the hard work didn’t stop at graduation, but expected that, and that’s OK.
At those times I think of my own teachers with new appreciation for them, and wish they could see me try to teach as well.
I’m nowhere near their level, but each semester I have a new group of young people to help me as I figure it out for myself. I have to do the rest.
And if I succeed, I’ll let them take all the credit.