Tuesday, May 22, 2007

A Little Gratitude

My neighbor's son just graduated from high school, and he stopped my wife the other day and asked question that surprised her, mostly because he of the way he asked it.  He is not an emotional guy, and he is not one of those people who needs to hear a thank you when he pitches in to help out someone else.  Nevertheless, he began to tear up a little and asked my wife, "Do they ever let you know they are grateful for all that you have done for them?"

My children are in their twenties, so my wife and I have been through high school graduations and sending children off to college, so my wife understood his question and the disappointment that underlay it.  My wife assured him that they do, eventually, in one way or another, let you know they understand all the hard work and love that went into raising them; it is just that they usually do not do it until they are long past high school.

I taught high school for a number of years before attending law school, and I saw the same thing with my students.  A few high school students will express gratitude to their teachers during commencement, but the malls are not teeming with those students.  High school students mostly go on to college and the rest of their lives without saying thanks to the teachers who gave so much time and sweat to teaching them skills essential to their future success.

After I had taught a while, however, I found that former students, five or ten years down the road, would stop by just to say, "Thank you for all that you did."  The longer I taught, the more often that happened.  One time, I ran into a former student who ten years earlier had taken every opportunity to let the teachers and administrators know that he thought that our school was a waste of his time.  That day, however, he told me that he had decided to go into teaching.  He told me he had spent some time coaching kids in a summer baseball league and that he had suddenly realized what it was we had been trying to do for him all those years before.  He said he decided then that he wanted to spend his life doing the same thing and that he was now teaching high school.

It took time to hear those kinds of things from high school students because students generally have to experience success for a while before they start to look back over their lives to see who contributed to that success.  Until I had taught for a few years, most of my former students just were not old enough to be reflective about the people who had been there for them when they were young.

I suspect the same is true for those of us who work in academic support.  I have worked in the field for only a couple of years now, and I have already had a few students go out of their way to say thanks, probably because law students are more mature than their high school counterparts; but few have expressed that genuinely deep gratitude that I still hear every so often from my former high school students.

Law school graduates are busy celebrating the end of law school, preparing for and worrying about the bar exam, moving on in their lives and careers.  Down the road, I suspect some will come back to express a deeper gratitude, just as high school students go back to let their teachers know that things are going well and that they hope they have made their teachers proud, just as children one day realize just how much was required of their parents.

I say all of this because at the end of the year, teaching can seem like a thankless job sometimes.  Students are not necessarily grateful for all of their professors' hard work, including the hard work of those of us in academic support.  If you are new to the field, you may be a little dismayed that your students are not more enthusiastic in their gratitude, and you may wonder if anything you have done was really worth it to them.

I know we are not in this work so that we can have students thank us one day, but the gratitude of students can let us know our work was not in vain, so the thanks matter on some level.  Anyone who serves others wants to know occasionally that the work was appreciated.

My experience, as a parent and as a teacher, tells me that the thanks will come someday.  You will begin to hear from students, often long after they have gone; and they will let you know that they see all that you did for them.  Some, maybe most, will never take the time to say it -- some children never tell their parents -- but most will think it, and some will say it.

What you are doing matters, and it matters to your students -- if not today, someday.  Keep plugging along, thanks or no, because you are changing lives.  One day, someone will stop you on the street or come up to you at a reception or maybe even drop by your office; and you will hear how much all that you did meant to him.  You did not help him so that one day you would hear him say thank you; but when you hear it, you will see your work through different eyes. (Dan Weddle) 

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