Sometimes the question is more important than the answer. Periodically, in the midst of a teaching session, I would ask myself this question: How much does the quality of my teaching really matter in the overall education of my students?
Considering all the potential factors which could determine how well or much a student might learn, how big a difference could the time a student spent with me really make? Relative to everything else that might be going on in a student’s life imprinting itself on mind and body, if I imagined myself to be responsible for 2% of a student’s total learning in any given year, I would be claiming a lot.
If you believe in compound interest, 2% is a lot. A 2% increase in knowledge compounded annually, will produce a life-changing increase in knowledge of 65% over a 25-year period (according to my compound interest calculator). Put another way, at the risk of sounding biblical, good teachers plant seeds which they have sound reason to hope will grow over time and make a difference in the lives of those they’ve taught.
But the answer isn’t what is important about asking this question. The question is important in its own right, even without an answer, because it reminds teachers of the limitations of their short-term influence.
Why should teachers remind themselves of their limitations? For one thing, it’s a mental health issue. In my experience, wherever teachers gather the phrase “burn out” is used all too frequently and glibly, but teachers do need to pace themselves. There is no limit to how much work any individual might put into teaching. No matter how much or how well you might do, when it comes to teaching there is always room to say I could have done more or better.
And there are no limits to what we might imagine the effect of a teacher might be. Unfortunately, when we fail to achieve fantastic, imaginary goals, it is a typical human response to do less rather than as much as we are able. The Danes are repeatedly identified in global surveys (much to their own surprise) as the happiest in the world. The reason they score so well on happiness tests is their modest expectations. Maintaining low expectations shouldn’t be an objective, but teachers need to allow themselves to enjoy the satisfaction of their achievements--even if those achievements might not count as world-changing or award-winning in anyone’s books. Being able to say “that went pretty well” at the end of a class is a monumental moment in a teacher’s life, and the accumulation of those positive memories, the why and how and wherefore of them, is what makes good teachers good teachers.
There is another, and perhaps more important reason, that teachers need to question and recognize the limitations of their influence: it’s focus. Teachers need a version of The Serenity Prayer. You know, the one that alcoholics recite: “grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
With teachers courage matters, but they also need determination, conviction, passion, optimism, idealism, skill, concentration and focus to do what they can do, taking care of the details, the immediate, the one-on-one, the minutia, being on time, well prepared, creative and caring, without being distracted and overwhelmed by what they can’t control or do anything about at the moment. I recently heard a Navy SEAL being interviewed (he was part of the team that assassinate Osama Bin Ladin). He described losing his courage, freezing up, unable to move while in the middle of a rock-climbing exercise. The instructor rappelled over to him and reminded him “your universe is three square feet.” The trick is to stay focussed on the three square feet that matter right now, finding the next crevice and toe hold, and avoiding the paralysis of thinking about all those things that could happen, that might go wrong, that you can’t do anything about. It is difficult to recognize and easy to forget how hard and how essential it is for teachers to stay focussed on what they want to achieve in the moment. How much you matter doesn't matter! What matters is what you are doing right now!