I have just ended my 38-year career as a chemistry teacher, which spanned five decades. I have seen many events that reflect on my career’s highs and lows.
When I entered teaching in 1976, I wasn’t sure if I was going to stay after one year. Circumstances were such that 38 years later, I am leaving what has become one of the greatest experiences of my life.
Most people have an opinion on what a teacher is. I can assure you that if you never were a teacher, your opinion is just that – an opinion.
In June, as I was wrapping up my final days, many of my students took the time to stop by to wish me a happy retirement and told me that my chemistry class was one of the best classes they had in high school. Many students put their thoughts in writing to tell me of their experiences.
As teachers, we don’t always know how effective we are. A single final exam is not an indicator, although some politicians seem to think so. There are no standing ovations for us in June, no sold-out classes, no fan clubs, nor are there any championship trophies awarded at the end of the school year.
Our life’s work is evident in the successes in our students’ lives as they finish their schooling and move on to become productive members of society. It is gratifying to see many of my former students now as doctors, police officers, nurses, scientists, engineers, attorneys, pharmacists, soldiers and teachers themselves, knowing I had a small part in them becoming who they are as adults.
Over the years, I saved some of the thank you letters I received from students for my help in whatever I did at that time of their life. I ran across many of these letters as I was cleaning out my files. One thank you note was from a student who was accepted into West Point.
Another was from a student who had to write an essay about a teacher who had impacted him the most. He wrote of my belief in him when he felt he was an immature young man with no future. He was carrying a 3.9 grade point average in college at the time he wrote that essay. I wonder where he is today?
As I now enter the next phase of my life, I don’t know what lies ahead, but I will miss the development of relationships I made with my students. I will miss the nearly unconditional trust they had in me to guide them in their learning. I will miss hearing the many stories of their young adult lives, their plans for college and beyond. I will miss the conversations I have had with my students about everything from grades to resolving personal problems, to the latest sports discussions, to our favorite Italian cookies.
Teachers don’t just teach; we are our students’ life barometer. The relationships we make with our students cannot be experienced by anyone else. My students gave me more than they know. I will miss that time greatly. I would also like to thank the parents who sent me their children ready to learn. It made my job so much easier.
So for now it is summer vacation. In September, I am sure I will be up before dawn, ready to meet my new charges. But alas, there will be someone else in my place. I only wish in 38 years, he or she will feel as good as I do in being called a teacher. It is so much more than the periodic chart.