George Lucas Educational Foundation

What Students Remember Most About Teachers

What Students Remember Most About Teachers

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Teacher and student smiling at each other

Dear Young Teacher Down the Hall,

I saw you as you rushed past me in the lunch room. Urgent. In a hurry to catch a bite before the final bell would ring calling all the students back inside. I noticed that your eyes showed tension. There were faint creases in your forehead. And I asked you how your day was going and you sighed.

“Oh, fine,” you replied.

But I knew it was anything but fine. I noticed that the stress was getting to you. I could tell that the pressure was rising. And I looked at you and made an intentional decision to stop you right then and there. To ask you how things were really going. Was it that I saw in you a glimpse of myself that made me take the moment?

You told me how busy you were, how much there was to do. How little time there was to get it all done. I listened. And then I told you this:

I told you to remember that at the end of the day, it’s not about the lesson plan. It’s not about the fancy stuff we teachers make -- the crafts we do, the stories we read, the papers we laminate. No, that’s not really it. That’s not what matters most.

And as I looked at you, wearing all that worry and under all that strain, I said it’s about being there for your kids. Because at the end of the day, most students won’t remember what amazing lesson plans you’ve created. They won’t remember how organized your bulletin boards are. How straight and neat are the desk rows.

No, they’ll not remember that amazing decor you’ve designed.

But they will remember you.

Your kindness. Your empathy. Your care and concern. They’ll remember that you took the time to listen. That you stopped to ask them how they were. How they really were. They’ll remember the personal stories you tell about your life: your home, your pets, your kids. They’ll remember your laugh. They’ll remember that you sat and talked with them while they ate their lunch.

Two children sitting together
Two of my former Kindergarten students enjoying a quiet moment together

Because at the end of the day, what really matters is YOU. What matters to those kids that sit before you in those little chairs, legs pressed up tight under tables oft too small -- what matters to them is you.

You are that difference in their lives.

And when I looked at you then with tears in your eyes, emotions rising to the surface, and I told you gently to stop trying so hard -- I also reminded you that your own expectations were partly where the stress stemmed. For we who truly care are often far harder on ourselves than our students are willing to be. Because we who truly care are often our own worst enemy. We mentally beat ourselves up for trivial failures. We tell ourselves we’re not enough. We compare ourselves to others. We work ourselves to the bone in the hopes of achieving the perfect lesson plan. The most dynamic activities. The most engaging lecture. The brightest, fanciest furnishings.

Because we want our students to think we’re the very best at what we do and we believe that this status of excellence is achieved merely by doing. But we forget -- and often. Excellence is more readily attained by being.

Being available.
Being kind.
Being compassionate.
Being transparent.
Being real.
Being thoughtful.
Being ourselves.

And of all the students I know who have lauded teachers with the laurels of the highest acclaim, those students have said of those teachers that they cared.

You see, kids can see through to the truth of the matter. And while the flashy stuff can entertain them for a while, it’s the steady constance of empathy that keeps them connected to us. It’s the relationships we build with them. It’s the time we invest. It’s all the little ways we stop and show concern. It’s the love we share with them: of learning. Of life. And most importantly, of people.

And while we continually strive for excellence in our profession as these days of fiscal restraint and heavy top-down demands keep coming at us -- relentless and quick. We need to stay the course. For ourselves and for our students. Because it’s the human touch that really matters.

It’s you, their teacher, that really matters.

So go back to your class and really take a look. See past the behaviors, the issues and the concerns, pressing as they might be. Look beyond the stack of papers on your desk, the line of emails in your queue. Look further than the classrooms of seasoned teachers down the hall. Look. And you will see that it’s there- right inside you. The ability to make an impact. The chance of a lifetime to make a difference in a child’s life. And you can do this now.

Right where you are, just as you are.

Because all you are right now is all you ever need to be for them today. And who you are tomorrow will depend muchon who and what you decide to be today.

It’s in you. I know it is.


That Other Teacher Down the Hall

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Lori Gard's picture

Thank you for these thoughts, Martin. We need to be reminded of this message often!

Lori Gard's picture

What an amazing legacy to leave your students- that your example of kindness and care inspired them to live their life in the same manner. What more can we ask for? Bravo to you!

Lori Gard's picture

Thank you Kenneth for sharing your story with us- we need to encourage one another to stay the course and focus on what really matters: the people we teach.

Lori Gard's picture

Thank you for reading my letter- glad it was able to provide food for thought!! All the best in the New Year.

Chelsea Wilson's picture
Chelsea Wilson
Technology Coordinator/Teacher

I remember my stern teachers the most. Maybe I was a difficult student. One of my most memorable teachers was actually a nun. She would share bits of wisdom with a pack of wild middle school girls. Her life messages would always begin with "Now Girls, you must remember..." She academically taught us Latin but her life advice taught us so much more.

George's picture

I remember my math teacher, Mr Coles the most. His enthusiasm was contagious. He made math interesting and understandable to even those who were lost. Jeanne my friend was one of those, she was lost in math but at the end of the year she mastered it. Unfortunate we only had Mr Coles for one year. I will always remember him.

Michael Cady's picture
Michael Cady
Teacher of history and critical thinking with over forty years of experience.

Over the years I mentored many new teachers. I often told them that teaching is like following railroad tracks. There are two separate tracks heading in the same direction. To survive as a teacher you have to cover both. One track is "the system." You have to understand how you are going to be evaluated, what the system thinks "good teaching" is, the social-political environment of the campus and district where you teach, the personality of the decision makers on your campus - starting with your principal and school board. If your student are facing standardized exams then become an expert on them, and make sure they do well. You need to do all this to keep your job, but never confuse that track with your purpose for being there. That's the other track. That track includes being there for your kids, helping them grow as human beings, getting them involved - even passionate - about their own learning, being inspirational (as much as possible), helping them see themselves reflected in the curriculum, to be humorous, to remember they are (in my case) "teenagers" (and you were one too) , to be real, and show them how important they are to you - every day! To survive you need to follow both tracks. The second one is the one the students will learn from and remember. I did both; I only cared about the second track.

ej12015's picture

As a future teacher I truly enjoyed this and found a lot of insight in it. One of my main fears when starting teaching is that I won't be prepared or I won't be a good teacher. This post definitely made me realize why I chose this career and how rewarding it can be. I know things won't always be easy, and I am sure I will have my days where I feel like I am not performing well as a teacher, but the connection with my students will make it all worth it. My mother is currently a high school English teacher and there are many days she comes home exhausted, but she always has at least one positive interaction with a student every day, and those are the things I look forward to. Really enjoyed this, gave a lot of positive insight to being a teacher.

Meryl Mixit's picture

Even across a huge language barrier, this is so true. I work at an awful sweatshop-like "kindergarten" in South Korea where I'm under constant pressure to relentlessly push the kids to work way too hard for their age level and to scold them for crying, playing and talking in English class, and just being kids. In spite of that, I've always tried to listen to my heart and be there for the kids, not for the respect of the other teachers. And they wonder why the kids love me so much! Thank you so much for writing this, it brought tears to my eyes and reminded me of what really matters in this situation.

rita's picture

Awesome!!! I think all practicing teachers should read this. As the editor of a teachers' magazine in India, The Progressive Teacher, I would like your permission to reproduce your thoughts in my magazine. Awaiting your response

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