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The Smile File

Teaching can drain you. We invest so much in to our lessons, planning, giving feedback…. and for what? Proverbially, we are planting seeds that we may never see grow.  More often than not, we will never know the outcomes of what students take away from our classes. Students rarely say “thank you” or let us know that we said/did something that left a lasting impact for them.  Several years back I starting saving the positive notes I would get from students and their parents  from my time working housing and residence life.  I call this folder my “Smile File”.  I break it open every now and then when the teaching load’s emotional weight begins to weigh on me.   But first… a story.

This past week, my high school Math teacher, Jane Henson, passed away unexpectedly. She taught from 1970 until 1999, her career covered generations of students in the little UP town of Manistique.  She would have us give ourselves a little pet talk aloud before every quiz. “I will try.  I have studied and I am ready.  I am capable. I will do my best.” [if this sounds goofy, imagine a group of 15-16 year olds reciting it together… yes, we always giggled… It broke the ice and it worked.]  She told us that numbers can do a lot of things – but they don’t measure our abilities, potential, or value. She was amazing.  She was goofy.  She smiled and laughed and genuinely enjoyed what she did.  And she taught – oh lord – she was an amazing teacher.

Let me digress to another story.

In 2007 I was sitting in a doctoral education course, “Quantitative Analysis” – as an English/Education/Communications person, I can tell you that numbers, x and y axis’s, and any letter that stands in the place of a number ALL cause me anxiety.  I had tested out of math classes in college – I thank my skills as a test taker and not as a math wiz for that feat.  I hadn’t taken a math class since 1995…. While I had an amazing high school math teacher, going on 12 years without heavy [number] lifting, this course caused something between perpetual anxiety attacks and eternal panic.  Our instructor was a genius level PhD from Thailand, brilliant in the field of educational statistics and everything quantitative.  As he starting explaining predictive modelling and trend lines (this is before the ‘t tests’ started coming in… a whole additional level of anxiousness), I felt the ‘lightswitch’ click on.  I learned over to my classmate, a middle school math instructor who had gone into k-12 admin., and said, isn’t this just a y=mx+b thing?  He looked and smiled, nodding, and noting that I must have had an amazing high school math teacher for me to remember and make this connection.  I told him that indeed I did.  And next, he said something powerful — “you should tell her.”

Let me tell you — the UP is a small place… but tracking down a teacher who has been retired for nearly 10 years is not an easy feat.  So I do what all good investigators do — I searched the internet.  I found an address and sent a thank you note off and in the mail — maybe 5-6 lines of text — it simply said “Thanks. You were right. All that stuff you taught – I’m using it now.  I was/am terrified, but I still recite to myself that I can do this and I’m going to try to do my best. I emulate you in the classes I now teach. You were an amazing teacher.  Thank you.  You made a difference in my life [and I might even pass quantitative analysis, the last class between me and my doctorate]”….

And would you believe, thanks to the magic that is the US Postal Service, this card made its way to tiny Manistique, got forwarded to her new place in Arizona… and a month later I got a response back.  I received a thank you for a thank you note.  See… in 40 years of teaching, she had never gotten a thank you note before. [And this breaks my heart].  But she was happy and excited for me and sending me per-congratulations on my upcoming doctoral degree, because she knows I can do it. And challenging me to be the best teacher and learner I can be — and to recite her mantras of “I will do my best” — because in the end, it’s not the end result as much as it is the process that matters.

Her card is in my smile file.

Learning of her passing this week brought me to tears.  And I am so thankful I took the time to send her that note just over ten years ago.

So here we are in 2020.  My students some times recite a little mantra as we go into an activity or project — “I will try. I will do my best.”  Because in the end, it’s the process that matters.  Numbers do a lot of things, but they don’t measure a student’s abilities or value. I work every day to make sure my students know that I value them and their learning.  And every once in a while I get a note back from students.  Those go into my smile file too.

On the rough days, when lessons go wrong and it feels like the weight of assignments [or correcting] is coming down upon me, I break out the smile file.  It’s what reminds me that it’s all worth it.  What we do matters.  And we might not see the seeds we plant sprout — but someday we might just see the fruits of our labors.  And that’s how we know we made a difference.

I challenge you all to start your own “smile files”.  Even if it’s just a nook in a drawer where we keep the good snippets from course feedback.  What we do matters.  And sometimes we need to be reminded of that very thing. note from student note from student note from student

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