"I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you make them feel."
Ms. Angelou's quote could be a discouraging thought for any teacher who has stood in the front of the room carrying on about isosceles triangles or the use of passive voice.
We think we're up there to impart information, but sadly, our students don't arrive with hinges on their skulls like a Monty Python cartoon, ready to have their heads tipped open and the facts poured in. So, yes, they will more than likely forget what we said.
And unless, like a former colleague of mine who used to pile up all the classroom desks to mimic World War I trench warfare, they'll probably also forget what we did.
People will not forget how we made them feel.
This is why teachers wield such a fearful power, something it took me a couple of years to realize.
We scan the room with a radar-like sweep, noting who's texting, who's awake, who's about to jab the person in front of him with a strategically sharpened pencil, and all the while our mouth is going, trying to plow through that day's material before the next interruption from the office. While we're peering over our reading glasses, droning on about the characteristics of the tragic hero, we sometimes forget that at least half of the room is staring back at us and thinking.
No, not about the tragic hero, but about us, the teachers.
A teenager lifts his eyes to return our gaze and instead of experiencing an epiphany over the karma of Oedipus or indecision of Hamlet, he instead wonders how old we are, do we have kids, and whether or not we dye our hair. Unburdened by the distraction of the lesson, kids develop powerful skills of observation and really see teachers for what we are.
I can't remember a thing from 5th grade at Patrick Henry Elementary School except my favorite teacher, Mr. Sargent, and the fact that I liked him and he was kind to me. Mrs. Rappaport, my 10th grade homeroom teacher, exuded a kind of no-nonsense warmth, (although I do recall the dressing-down she gave to the odious Larry, a very vocal John Bircher).
A sweet girl from another class stopped by my room the period I had one of my more challenging groups. These were 12th graders, some old enough to vote, and prior to their arrival I always made sure that my purse was safely locked away, along with anything else remotely portable. My greatest mission each day was to keep them awake but also in their seats.
My visitor was Shaniqua, an 11th grade honor student. She bounced in to drop off a late essay, wearing her usual friendly smile and expecting to find the same easygoing atmosphere she was used to in her class with me. She took one look at my stance at the front of the room, my mouth set in a grim line, my knuckles white as I gripped the podium, and whispered, “You don’t like this class much, do you Miss?”
In my defense, three years after retiring I’m still getting Facebook requests from past students.