Is That OK? (For Teachers)

P question

Here at pleasureinlearning, several bloggers have recently posted thoughts about the importance of recognizing and validating our college students. Too often we forget that teachers, shockingly, are also people who want to be recognized and validated.  Maybe we feel that we are “above” all that.  After all, we’re supposed to be the grownups in the academic world, right? We shouldn’t need someone to tell us that we’re OK when we’re so obviously fabulous.

Not so much. The oft-mentioned Happiness Project  recently offered this quote from John Ruskin:

“In order that people may be happy in their work, these three things are needed: They must be fit for it. They must not do too much of it. And they must have a sense of success in it.”

How do teachers know when we’re successful?

There seem to be plenty of people ready to help us decide.

  • The TESTERS: How well do my students perform on a standardized test?
  • The OUTCOMERS: How well are do my students demonstrate understanding of a concept? Have they mastered a skill?
  • The SURVEYORS: If you ask my students if they’ve learned anything, what do they say?
  • The LONG-RANGE STATISTICIANS: Can we measure where my students end up? How well do they do when they get there?
  • The SUPERVISORS: How much do I contribute to my college? Am I doing enough “stuff”? Am I climbing the career ladder?

All of these folks can provide useful insights, and I certainly won’t disregard any of them. But, in my heart of hearts, none of those criteria convince me that I’m successful. So what does?

Clues from unexpected sources:

You've got a strong heart!

You’ve got a strong heart! (Photo credit: hubertk)

To maintain my credentials as a pediatrician, I complete continuing education activities from the American Academy of Pediatrics. In the introduction to the 2012 Pediatrics Review Education Program (PREP), Editor-in-Chief Lawrence Nazarian offered the following vignette.  Dr. Nazarian is Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Rochester, has taught thousands of students and residents, and has an impressive list of honors that demands prolonged scrolling down the virtual page. What made him feel validated?

“For some reason, Nicholas occupies a special place in my memory. He was 4 years old at the time, and I was examining his infant brother, who was lying on the table. Nicholas was gazing up at the whole procedure with a look of awe. I had to leave the room temporarily, and as I walked out, Nicholas, a most perceptive and precocious child, proclaimed in a loud voice, ‘Now there goes a great man!'”

Four-year-olds are notoriously hard to fool. They can sniff out a lack of authenticity from a mile away.  Twenty-four-year-olds are pretty good at it, too. They know the difference between a teacher who knows her subject and is making a genuine effort to teach it and one who’s just going through the motions.


Oddly enough,  two episodes involving my students’ textbooks have offered me unexpected validation. Our textbook is breathtaking in its quality, its heft, and especially its cost. So when a student inadvertently left her copy lying on a lab bench after class one day, the students lingering in the room and I were concerned.  Feeling that it was almost a personal violation to open the paper-crammed book, I gingerly flipped the front cover to check for a name.

Student textbook with copied quotes

Student textbook with copied quotes

To my surprise, the end papers were covered with handwritten copies of the inspirational quotes that I feature at the beginning of each class as I set up my tech equipment. Honestly, I project those as much for myself as anyone else, and it touched me that they had meant so much to the student. I present the photographic evidence here with the student’s permission.

Not long after that incident, another student came to my office and asked if I would entertain “a strange request.” Curious, I agreed to consider it. She presented her text, which had pristine endpapers, and asked me to inscribe it for her. I think that was the first time I’ve ever been asked to autograph anything more exciting than tax returns and prescription refills. Again, I present the illustration with her full permission.

book3I hope that my concept of success will continue to evolve as I teach. This week brought emails from students who have been accepted into selective healthcare programs, and I know that feels good—good that they earned a spot and are taking a step toward their personal goals, good that some of what they’ve learned might be used to improve the lives of others, and positively great that they took the time to share their happiness with me. To quote a favorite line from Babe the Gallant Pig by Dick King-Smith, “That’ll do, Pig.”


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