Teachers Seldom See the Fruits of Their Labor

I think all of us who teach wonder if we have made any difference in the lives of our students.  We wonder if they are taking the lessons we taught them and applying them in real life after graduation. 

As Nate Keuter points out, this is perhaps the most frustrating part of teaching.  While all of us have students who stay in touch and regularly thank us for our classes and investment in their lives, most of the students we teach disappear from our lives after the semester is over.  In our more reflective moments, we wonder if they are learning or have learned anything from us?  Do the seeds we cast bear any fruit? 

The “powers-that-be” in the academic world have responded to these professorial feelings of insecurity about their effectiveness through standardized tests and endless assessment. We can now be reasonably sure whether or not we are actually teaching anything to our students. While such an approach to measuring student learning can be helpful, it does not give us a sense of how our former students are using their education in real-life situations a year, or two years, or five years, or a decade, or three decades after they leave college.  Assessment of this kind does not measure those “aha” moments when a former student finally makes the connection between his or her life and that seminar discussion on historical thinking.  We will never know.

Keuter describes the frustration of it all:

We teach students one semester, and if we are lucky over the course of several semesters, but very rarely do we enjoy the privilege of seeing them apply what they have learned in our classes as they grow, mature, and prosper. Very rarely do we get to see the seeds of knowledge that we like to think that we are planting grow, blossom, and fruit. Equally problematic, when a student leaves our classroom, we often are unable to see the threats to the “crop,” the withering, moldering, and russeting caused by metaphoric pests — for example, misapplying a principle, or forgetting a fundamental lesson — and so are unable to offer corrective help as a farmer or gardener would to their crops. We are often powerless to help students after they leave our classrooms. Of course, if you take it too far, the whole student/crop metaphor gets obnoxious, and wrongly implies that students are passive crops, and teachers omnipotent farmer-gods.

Not being able to see, though, is endlessly frustrating. And indeed this frustration has motivated many aspects of contemporary academic life, not the least of which include the national testing movements at the high school level and the increasingly loud calls for “accountability” at all levels of education. We all, whether we are teachers, administrators, or simply concerned citizens, want very badly to be able to “see” the results, the successes and failures, of our educational systems…

…But especially at the undergraduate level, our ability to observe students’ progress is often obscured. When we are very, very lucky, we hear back from students, and have the pleasure of seeing their progress. Perhaps they e-mail us, months or even years after a class, to say how they’ve been applying something from the class, or to relay an anecdote about how something discussed in class finally “clicked” for them. Perhaps they drop by our offices one day, to express thanks, or, in a moment of exuberance, to report how “that thing you taught us” helped them out in another class, or another part of their life. Whether you are a welder or a professor, it is affirming to be able to step back and see the results of your work. But it’s considerably easier to put your eyes on that work if you’re the welder.

I don’t think there is any way of relieving the frustration that Keuter writes about.  It comes with the job.