Monday, September 23, 2013

The Influence of Teachers and Teaching

I moved over the summer, and it was as hard as moves are predicted to be. It took a lot of time and created its share of stress, but fortunately nothing broke and the new place is a lot nicer and very enjoyable. A friend told me that when you move, you lose something and you find something. Sure enough, a few things went missing, and who knows what happened to those boxes. But I also found a big envelop full of letters and correspondence that was sent to my old address at Dartmouth. Somehow it ended up on a shelf under a pile of papers and I never opened it. I looked inside and found some foreign correspondence, old issues of the Economist, and then a letter in a thick, elegant envelope. I opened it and found a wedding invitation. It came from one of my former students; she was in my class several years ago and also worked for me as a research assistant. I remember her vividly: a very petite Asian student who did not speak very much in class but who ranked at the top of the course. With my Italian mamma attitude, I felt protective of her; she looked so much younger for her age than the other students, and so fragile. But in fact, she had an iron will and when she was admitted to an excellent law school, she decided that the town where it was located was not ideal for a foreign student—the reasoning of a mature person who knows what she is looking for.  She had been put on a waiting list at some other schools and ultimately ended up at another Ivy League institution. And now she was inviting me to her wedding in California. I read the invitation several times, thinking of that petite student in the classroom.

As teachers, we tend to forget how much of a difference we can make for our students: we can motivate them to study more and harder, we can provide opportunities for them to ask a lot of questions, to challenge existing ideas, and we can push them to do more. The Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession, also known as CSWEP, asked many famous economists how they chose their career. In many cases, the answer was that a teacher influenced them to choose economics or to go to graduate school or pursue an academic career.

I used to teach freshmen at Dartmouth, and I remember the faces of students in class, the mixture of curiosity and terror at taking their first economics course, which, on campus, had a reputation for being very difficult. Because of the work I had done on financial literacy, I knew that female students needed different arguments in order to find the course interesting and relevant.  And they needed encouragement to participate in class, ask questions, and volunteer their opinions. And I knew that technical terms—economics jargon—were off-putting for everybody, so I started the course simply and built both the “language” of economics and finance and its principles day by day. Truth be told, most of the students enrolled in economics courses because their parents told them to, so I had to prove to them that their parent were, in fact, right. (Do you see now what a tough job we have?)

When I talked to these students, many told me stories about their teachers, in some cases explaining that they had applied to highly selective colleges because their teachers had encouraged them to aim high. I heard that they loved math because their teachers made the course so good, and that they did well because their teachers cared about them. If I look back at each stage of my education, from elementary to high school to college and to graduate school, like my students, I can point to some teachers who had a profound influence on me and on who I am today. 

I am reminded of this lesson any time I start teaching a new class, any time I enter in the classroom where a new set of students are waiting. As a teacher, I have the good fortune of working with young people whose life of accomplishments has just begun.  I have a chance to influence their knowledge and, in turn, what they can do with it.

There are a few profound pleasures in life. One is receiving an invitation to the wedding of a former student. As the new academic year begins, I am reminded of the special job I have and what it means for students. For me, what I found during my move was a lot more important than what I lost.

1 comment:

hannah lucy said...

this post gave me pleasure . thanks for this

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