Teaching, Thoughts On...

Thoughts on Making a Difference

Today has definitely been one of those days: the kind of day when I ask myself, over and over again, “Am I making any kind of difference in my students’ lives? Or am I just here to make sure they stay busy and don’t hurt each other?”

I often wonder if other teachers think of this question as often as I do. Part of the reason I think this so often, I believe, is because I’ve quickly realized that most students are NOT like me (or not like I was as a student)–many of them do not really care about doing their best on things or turning all their work in on time or understanding a concept as perfectly as they can. And sometimes, in my head, all of that somehow gets translated to, “I’m not getting through to them; they don’t get why this is important, so I am failing as a teacher.”

Maybe the reason many of them don’t seem to care is because maybe they don’t hear their mother’s voices in their heads like I do, telling them “Be proud of the work you do! Even if it’s just wiping the kitchen table, you should take pride in the work you’ve done.” Maybe they’ve never pushed thmselves to their true best, so they haven’t experienced the euphoria and the absolute peace that comes from having truly put forth all your effort. Whatever it may be, it seems that one thing is clear: often the things I desire most for them to learn are the very things they resist learning the most because they are the hardest and require the most work.

People are constantly reminding me that if I can reach even ONE student, I will have succeeded. Some days, I really really wish I could buy into that philosophy completely. Don’t get me wrong–I’m not trying to imply that there isn’t great truth in that statement. The fact is, I am happy that I seem to have made a difference in at least one student’s life (at least some of the time).

I guess my problem is that I want to make an impact on EVERY student’s life–I want to especially reach out to those students who aren’t like me and who don’t care and help them to open their eyes and start taking pride in what they do. I don’t want to just be satisfied that I’ve already made a difference in some of the students’ lives (who already liked my subject anyway) and call it good–I want to change the world by changing the minds of the students who DON’T like my subject. Is that really too much to ask?

Problem is, that’s the hardest population to change. It also seems to be that the majority of my students fit into that difficult category.

I feel sometimes like I’ve tried it all: getting to know my students as people, making the lessons engaging yet challenging, letting them make some of their own choices…and I often still feel like I’m failing.

Oh, I’m sure that some of them have learned a little bit, in spite of themselves. But is it bad that I want all of them to learn it ALL?

Then there’s the ever-present problem of comparison; I don’t know if many people know this, but educators (especially first-year teachers like me) have to go through an extensive evaluation process that often requires us being compared to the teachers around us (or especially, my results to their results). I remember after one such evaluation, one observer remarked to me, “I think you’re too serious a lot of the time–try lightening up more in your lessons, and you’ll probably reach more students that way. That’s how I am, and my students seem to respond better to it.”

This isn’t the first time I’ve gotten a comment like that, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. I got it all the time as a missionary, and I get it now as a teacher. The fact is, when I’m dealing with something I want the students to take seriously, I’m going to act serious. As a missionary, I beat myself up over it–I felt like people expected me to entertain them when I came over with jokes and funny small talk, when in reality I just wanted to share the most important truth in the world with them.

Then, as I was seriously contemplating trying to change who I was and how I related to people, I remember coming across this quote about halfway through my mission: “After the first performance of Messiah, Handel, responding to a compliment, said, “My lord, I should be sorry if I only entertained them—I wish to make them better.”

BAM–that hit my heart like a Mac truck. But honestly, that’s exactly how I feel sometimes: I feel like everyone expects me to “entertain” these students to some degree. On the one hand, YES, I do think I should make my lessons as engaging as possible. But in the end, if it comes down to really teaching them something important that requires a lot of work and that’s not going to be so “fun” and just entertaining them with endless activities, I will always choose the former.

Perhaps that’s why I feel like I’m failing a lot of the time–because, no matter how much you wish them to, 12- and 13-year-olds are often unable to grasp the lasting importance of what you are trying to teach them and to really care about how not learning it well will affect them down the road. Which is why, so often, I have the most students saying that they like me or that my class is their favorite after I’ve just done something more “fun” and less “work.”

That drives me crazy.

Maybe I’m not making sense. Or maybe I’m just too much of a perfectionist. One thing is for sure, though: I truly care about making a difference in my students’ lives. And if someone doesn’t agree with how I go about trying to do that, I guess I’ll just have to move past that.

One thought that is particularly helping me get over these self-defeating patterns of thinking is this part of President Uchtdorf’s talk that he gave last week in General Conference (a worldwide broadcast the LDS church holds twice a year):

“[W]hile the Atonement is meant to help us all become more like Christ, it is not meant to make us all the same. Sometimes we confuse differences in personality with sin. We can even make the mistake of thinking that because someone is different from us, it must mean they are not pleasing to God. This line of thinking leads some to believe that the Church wants to create every member from a single mold—that each one should look, feel, think, and behave like every other. This would contradict the genius of God, who created every man different from his brother, every son different from his father. Even identical twins are not identical in their personalities and spiritual identities.

The [world] thrives when we take advantage of this diversity and encourage each other to develop and use our talents to lift and strengthen our fellow[men].”

Deep down, I know I am making a difference just by being myself and doing the very best I can. Or at least I hope I am.

But sometimes that’s hard to remember when students ask me for the millionth time what I mean by “objective” and when they continue to make the same citation mistakes over and over and over again, even though I keep making them redo it, and when they all stare at me blankly when I ask them to identify the noun in the sentence.

But I guess in the end, we’re all like that–making the same mistakes over and over again. I just hope that eventually, my hope and faith in their abilities will help them to fan the flame that’s already burning within themselves, and they will be able to fulfill their own destinies and finally come into their own in this crazy world of ours.

Then maybe, just maybe–I will have actually made that difference I so wish to make. Even if it’s so small, I’ll never hear about it.

Am I the only one that often feels this way?



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