Teaching for the short term

Harold Shaw Jr. blogged recently about how he wanted to be remembered as a teacher. His message was one with which most teachers would agree. After dismissing the current emphasis on data for the sake of data, he said he wants students to report “5-10-20 years from now” that he made a difference in their lives:

Personally, I want to be remembered as a teacher who cared deeply for the growth of the student both academically and as a person beyond the classroom. Those are important things to be remembered for.

Although I agree with Shaw’s point and share his pleasure in anticipating the long-range impact of his work, I have some qualms about how such comments sound to the public.

It is true that a teacher’s impact cannot be determined the end of the week or even at the end of the school year, and it certainly cannot be reduced to a number on a chart.  However, one need not be a statistician, economist, or politician to want to see positive learning outcomes in fewer than five, 10, or 20 years.  The general public, parents, and students themselves want to see some results sooner.

An experience I had my second year student teaching (during my MACT, I taught two courses a semester for two years), taught me about the importance of seeing results in the short term.

That fall I gave my freshman composition students a library activity I’d used before. It required students to find a number of  specified types of library resources for whatever major they expected to pursue and prepare an annotated bibliography.

The library’s planned summer move from a two-story building to a new six-story building was delayed until the middle of fall semester, so my class assignment came about a week after the library move.

Library books had been unpacked in their new locations, but some of the boxes were unpacked out of order. The library staffing plan had been developed for the old two-story building, not for the new six-story facility, so there wasn’t anybody to ask for help.

That semester I had a pair of students, roommates, whose majors were audiology and dietetics. While the history and music majors breezed through the bibliography activity, the two girls with the narrow specializations had an awful time finding materials. For a couple weeks, every time I went to the library, those two girls were there working on their annotated bibliography assignment.

I had told students they could ask me for help if they saw me in the library; those two took me at my word. I got to the point where I was going to the library at midnight to try to get my own research done. Eventually, the three of us managed to locate all the resources so they could complete the assignment.

Spring semester began on a Tuesday. The following Monday, the audiology student from my fall class appeared at my door. She told me she had gotten through the bibliography project by saying to herself, “Some day you’ll thank her for this.” She said she expected “some day” to be in perhaps five years.

“I’m taking my first course in my major this semester,” she said. “The semester project is to do an annotated bibliography. Mine’s done.

“My semester project is done.

“Thank you.”

It may be true that the most important work teachers do is not noticeable until students had some years to mature. That said, however, I think focusing too hard on long-range results harms our profession and our students. At least some of the academic work we do should have an impact that students, parents, and community can see every year.

What’s more, we ought to spend at least as much time talking about the impact we’re having now as we spend on what we hope to see in 20 years. In this day of declining expenditures for education, publicizing our achievements is a vital activity.

[2/26/2014 removed links to information no longer publicly available.]