The point of telling you this story isn't to say a thing about me. I'm a normal educator, like you. I do normal work, like you. I'm on a journey to professional excellence, like you.
The point is to tell you something about us.
The other day I went to the grocery store in town, and I ran into a former student. I'll call her Scarlett.
As I was passing the deli counter, I suddenly heard, “Mr. Stuart! Mr. Stuart! Mr. Stuart!” The urgency in the voice jolted me out of reverie. I looked up and saw Scarlett.
“Hey there, Scarlett, what's up?”
“Mr. Stuart, I got a public speaking job! I'm going to be the union steward here at the store, so now I have to tell new employees about the union when they're hired. I get to go to a training for it today.”
She was just beaming. Her smile was so bright it almost made her mask glow.
Real quick backstory: Scarlett's been working at the store for a few years now, ever since she dropped out of high school. I see her every couple months when my shopping schedule intersects with her working schedule. Our greetings are always pleasant — despite the strong sense I always have that I failed to reach Scarlett during the time that she was on my roster.
Back to the story.
“Scarlett, that's really great news. Congratulations.”
I sat there looking at Scarlett, and she sat there smiling at me. I started to feel the pause as awkward.
“I'm really happy about it, Scarlett.”
“Me too,” she said. “You know, Mr. Stuart, your class helped me with public speaking. I used to hate it so much, but those pop-up debates showed me that I could do it.”
“Well… Scarlett, that's such a wonderful thing to hear,” I mumbled in my surprise. “I think all that we did is made public speaking normal. That's really it. And we practiced it together, and we enjoyed one another, and we pushed ourselves to grow as speakers.”
We sat smiling at each other.
“Hey, listen. I really appreciate you saying that, Scarlett. It means a lot.”
As I walked away from the encounter, my mind registered one thing. For years, I had been positive that I had failed with Scarlett — positive that, despite my efforts, I hadn't helped her grow as a thinker, speaker, reader, writer, or person.
But Scarlett didn't think that. Scarlett had evidence, years later, that the simple work we did in my class contributed at least a percentage point to the improvement of her long-term flourishing.
Tests didn't show it.
Grades didn't show it.
Her diploma didn't show it.
But, nonetheless, there it was that day in the store, standing right in front of me with a big smile.
Here's the point: You and I just don't know the extent of our impact. Doing the right work with the attitude of a craftsperson is too wrought with potential. Providing knowledge-rich learning experiences for our students, cultivating in our hearts a gentle and earnest love for them, working through our feelings toward them so that we can come out on the side of liking them as we seek to teach them… this is a stupefyingly potential-laden kind of work.
For every thank you that you get from a student for the work you've done this year, there are untold dozens that you won't.
Spring is coming, colleague. Keep your eye on the work that matters most. And hang in there.