I walked into the lobby of the new downtown history museum, and no sooner had I processed its interesting design (there’s a full-sized antique train hanging from the ceiling), I heard a strange voice say, “Hey, you used to be my teacher!” I turned. There was an official-looking young man standing behind the museum welcome counter. I responded, as I usually do, with my suave, deer-in-the-headlights look. I had walked right past this young man, who was under the impression we knew each other. Fortunately for me, the alleged former student was wearing a nametag. “Patrick!” I said—injecting feigned enthusiasm. “It’s you!”
If you’re a teacher, you’ve probably been in this situation and already know it has one of two outcomes: Either you will fake remembering the student to save embarrassment, or the rusty gears of your mind will slowly sift through thousands of previous students until at last you arrive at the face staring you down. As it turns out, I (twenty seconds later) remembered Patrick—in fact, I remembered him quite vividly. I remembered his face, and that he was quiet and pleasant; however, he was not the type of student I would have pictured standing at the welcome counter in a downtown history museum. I had no idea he liked history or museums or even standing behind counters.
For the next few minutes Patrick filled me in on his life. He had always had a love of art (who knew?), and after high school he had made plans for becoming a high-school teacher. (He did not mention me in conjunction with that career choice.) Somewhere along the way in his education, he had become interested in history, and through his interactions with the museum decided that educating through the museum was the pathway for him. So here was a student that had been just a normal sophomore in my class twelve years ago and is now a fellow educator. All I could think in that moment was: “What kind of teacher was I for Patrick?”
When I was Patrick’s teacher, he was one of thirty-two students in one of six classes that I taught each day. As I stood one on one with him though, I pushed the other 191 students to the back of my mind. He was the only one that mattered in that moment. He was a student who loved art and history (things I love, too), and I had no idea at the time I was teaching him. Now he was becoming a teacher himself. What example had I set for him? Had I been creative and inspirational? Or was I just going through the motions?
Day to day, it’s difficult to bring the individual needs of every single student to the forefront of your mind. But when I encounter a former student, I always hope that I made a positive impact. Comments from previous students have shown me that more often than not, it was my throw-away comments and actions—the things I said or did in a completely forgettable moment (to me)—that stays with them the rest of their lives.
So teach every day in a way that when you hear someone say, “Hey, you used to be my teacher!” it will be a positive experience, and you won’t have to cringe.
Note: Patrick’s name is not Patrick in real life. So, Patrick, if you happen to find this article, I really do know what your name is!