On Making a Difference

Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and I wonder “What happens to my students.  Did I have an impact on them?  Was it positive or negative?  Where are they now?  Did I teach them anything they find valuable today?”

The Tale of Two Educational Environments: The University…

This was especially true when I was a university professor.  I’d have 70-80 kids in my Biochemistry classes and 24 in my Chem Labs.  Most of the kids I saw during my office hours were students that needed something explained to them or, much more rarely, had come to complain about a grade.  I did get an occasional thank you letter (all of which I have kept and treasure) and once in a while a student would tell me that I was the, or one of the, best teachers they ever had.  These letters and comments kept me going through the onslaught of “student evaluations” which, at the university I taught at, were questions more appropriate for a popularity contest (for example, “Did you like the instructor?”) rather than an actual evaluation (“Was the material rigorous and challenging?  Why?”).  I didn’t score particularly highly on these evaluations because I asked students to think about the subject rather than just memorize material.  I realized I was, to these students, simply a hurdle they had to jump over on their way to Medical/Dental/Nutrition school.

However, from time to time, a student I had taught previously would show up and ask if they could do undergraduate research with me.  These were the kids that I got to work with one-on-one.  This could be exhilarating, especially when they would work hard and discover things I did not know.  I recently ran across a research summary a former student wrote more than twenty years ago that reminded me how much fun it was to teach and learn like that.

… and Steppingstone

I bring this up because I’ve recently had two similar experiences with students whom I have taught and learned from at Steppingstone.

One of these students took the Steppingstone MAgnetic Resonance Training class and continued to do research.  He presented his work at the International Magnetic Resonance Conference in Colorado and had a knot of professors and students around his poster for the entire two hours of the session.  He is the kind of person who asks questions after having thought through something as far as he could but has run up against something that keeps him from moving forward.  I was able to get him past these blocks by asking judicious questions and getting him to explain his thought process to me.  By doing this, he would realize what steps he needed to take next and the block was removed.  He has since gone through college getting a degree in chemical engineering and was accepted to medical school at Wayne State University.

The other student was a very quiet kid who was a perfectionist.  He was an excellent artist and would spend hours doing artwork that others would rush through.  I taught him to program computers and I have since learned that I ignited a fire under him in this topic.  This unassuming young man arrived at high school and became the computer expert of the school.  People would come to him to figure out programming problems they had.  He also worked ahead of his assignments and finished his assignments days or even weeks before deadlines.  He became an acknowledged class leader.

We Do Make a Difference!

The point is that, as a teacher and a learner, I do have an impact on the lives of those I work with.  It may not always be as obvious as these two examples, but I have to believe that I have, in some small way, affected the lives of every student I have taught mostly in ways that I will never know.  You don’t have to be a teacher to realize this; we all affect everyone we come in contact with.

All we can do is to work hard to leave this world a better place than when we entered it.  I am extraordinarily lucky to have Steppingstone as a vehicle with which I can give my all to making a difference for some of the brightest kids I have ever met.