Saturday, August 9, 2008

How do you know you make a difference?

Most teachers, at least the good ones, got into teaching because they wanted to make a difference in the lives of children. Sure, we all joke about the motivation of those three months off (which by the way has NEVER been three months), but deep down it is the everyday miracles that keep us going. The moments I cherish happen often for me, I guess because I am truly lucky and have great students. But, how do I know that my reach will go beyond the walls of my room?

Well, you see, I am a very lucky man. Early in my career, I had an encounter that helped define my life as an educator. I can think back to one time that I knew my presence had made a difference in the world outside my room.

I was in my fifth year teaching when I had an unexpected knock on the door to my tiny apartment. At the door were two students who had graduated the previous year from the school that I had just left. I lived across the street from my new school and I had visitors fairly frequently, but none from the previous school. At the door were John and Luke (and like Jeff from the previous story, not real names). I asked them in and we had a nice time catching up.

Maybe an hour into the conversation, Luke said, “I tracked you down because I wanted to thank you for saving my life.” I had absolutely no idea what he was referring to. I hadn’t seen him in a year and the tone of seriousness from one of the funniest kids I had ever known really took me by surprise. He said, “One night, a few months ago, I had decided to kill myself. I had just broken up with a girl that I was very serious with and I just didn’t see a reason to live.” I was shocked. I said that it must have really been a bad break up, but I wasn’t sure how I was the one who saved his live, since we hadn’t talked. He said, “I had a gun. I was ready to pull the trigger.” I had some training in leading a peer helping group and I remember the warning signs for suicide. I remember that number one warning sign was if the student had a plan. I thought to myself, “he had a plan.” Then he said, “I thought to myself. Mr. Shay would say this is really stupid and that the problems I was having would pass. So, I put the gun down and I am SO glad that I did. You were right. Now that some time has passed, I know that it was something that did pass. I have a new girlfriend and we are really happy. So I came here to say thank you.”

What an amazing gift I was given. It is amazing to me that this kid would track me down and tell me this amazingly personal story. I didn’t live that close to where the kid was living and it was quite a trip. But the truly amazing thing was that it happened at all. You see, I don’t remember having that conversation. I lead a group of peer helpers and that was one of the topics, but I don’t remember being particularly moving. There was a student who committed suicide in my second year of teaching, which was a defining moment in my career. I knew I couldn’t have saved that kid, but I was going to do whatever I could to make sure that there wasn’t another one like him. I even carried his picture in my wallet for years to remind me to take extra time with kids. So, I guess maybe when we covered that part of the peer helping curriculum, I was extra motivated. Maybe Luke remembered the passionate way I talked about it. Either way, I am so blessed to know that I truly have had a lasting impact.

Please know that even if you haven't had the good fortune to have a student come back and share their profound thanks, you make a difference. Please remember this story as the year passes. On those busy days that seem to never end....when one MORE kid needs a few minutes of your time….Your time and words and passion could impact someone deeply…..maybe even saving a life.


Lisa Parisi said...

You are truly blessed to have had him come back to let you know how important you are in the lives of students. Keep up with the peer work. It obviously makes a difference.

eplybon said...

It is a blessed thing that you impacted that student's life and that he came back to tell you about it. So many of us, though, will never hear stories that let us know how we've done.

Something I try to remember as I go through my life, not just my career, is that we don't know how successful our lives have been until we've lived our last day. If we all focus on being the best that we can be for each day - reflect at the end and try to do better the next day - we will live our last day knowing we were successful in doing so. The same thing can be applied to our careers in teaching.

TJ Shay said...

Thank you for leaving a comment. I am truly lucky. I am not allowed to do the program in the school I am currently in, but I do use the skills as much as possible.

I know a lot of teachers that have never had this sort of experience...but one thing I know for sure is that they have made a difference! I hope my little story is reassuring for others who didn't have the good fortune of a returning student.

It is important that we all remember that our efforts are never in vain...even if we don't get the feedback. I guess that is where teacing 'faith' comes in.

Thanks for taking the time to respond. I can tell by your warm comments and heart that you are a caring teacher and person.

TJ Shay said...

One looks back with appreciation to the brilliant teachers, but with gratitude to those who touched our human feelings. The curriculum is so much necessary raw material, but warmth is the vital element for the growing plant and for the soul of the child.
Carl Jung

Kat said...

This story reminds me that as teachers we are so often called upon to "parent our students."

For one year...each year...we spend more time with these students than anyone else in their lives. From 8-3 or 9-4...Monday thru Friday...they are our babies. :) Big or small! :)

Sometimes I feel like I spend too much time talking about life challenges and college with my students. My school this past year was 63% low social economic and even though it was a Fine Arts sat in a gang invested area of the city. Many of my students this year have gang ties and with parents in jail. How do you tell kids to not to join gangs when their family looks upon the lifestyle with pride. I began to notice though that my students loved to hear my stories of adversities and they would ask so many questions. Sometimes it would hard to get back to the lesson of the day. Then one day I realized I WAS teaching them. They were starving for direction in their lives and it helped them to hear about my hard times as a student and how I overcame them. If I didn't teach them these life choice skills.... who was going to?

Teaching LIFE Lessons! Sounds like you do the same thing.

Kim Caise said...

This was such an awesome post. I love to hear these kinds of stories and it is truly the reason I have stayed in teaching the past 18 years despite the trials and tribulations I have experienced along my educational journey. Although I have never met you f2f or the student referred to in your post, I am so grateful that your paths crossed in his time of need. You truly are a treasure find and I am so glad students have a teacher like you in their corner - keep on!

Kim Caise

loonyhiker said...

What an awesome story! This gave me shivers! Not as fantastic, but I had lunch with a student who was in my class about 15 years ago. I make all of my students write "I am a Born Winner!" on every paper they turn in for a grade. She mentioned that she still remembers that and when times get tough for her, she repeats that phrase over and over and it helps her.

SherryC said...

Wow! How fortunate you are that your student was able to share with you the difference you made. Even when most of us make a difference, we may never know about it.

I teach in a low socio-economic school and I believe I touch the lives of students every day. It is what keeps me going back. I doubt that I have ever made this much of an impact though and applaud your influence! Way to go!