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It Gets Personal

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Blog Post #2 in the series "Finding Inspiration and Joy in the Words of Others" 

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.—Maya Angelou

I received the news of Dan’s death on Monday, and my thoughts have returned to him often this week. Dan was my student in a college mathematics class last year—a student who often appeared at my office door asking for a little extra help with his math assignments. In June, a tragic accident claimed his life and the bright future that lay ahead of him.

I refer to Dan as my student. We all use the possessive my when we talk about the young people whom we teach. They are ours from the moment we meet them on the first day of class, and that relationship does not end when the school year concludes. Years after they graduate, we still call them my students. Those same students, if they ever have cause to talk about us, refer to us as my teachers.

I will be the first to admit that appreciation and respect are not always attached to this possessive relationship between teachers and students. We have all experienced the many dimensions of classroom relationships, including frustration, exasperation, hard work, shared laughter, disappointment, anger, joy, pride, inspiration, and sorrow. In spite of the emotional, logistical, and curricular challenges, the relationships that we cultivate—student to student, teacher to student, and student to mathematics—form the vital connections for classroom learning.

As high school and college teachers, we have the opportunity to be a contributing part of our students’ journey into young adulthood. We also realize that we are not always going to know exactly what our individual contribution will be. Students come and go, names and faces get mixed up, and memories fade. In 2012, I received an e-mail from a woman who identified herself as a student in my high school algebra class—in 1980! As she recently worked with a young family member doing math homework, she was reminded of my encouragement and compassion; she wanted to say thanks for being the teacher I was and for my persistent but unsuccessful efforts to have her seek after-school assistance. Somewhat stunned, I sat quietly as I read her message. In 1980, I was still a novice teacher, developing my classroom presence and practices. I was humbled that she remembered me and took the time to write, but, more so, I was struck by her naming several lasting characteristics that were certainly in their early stages of development at the time.

In 1982, Neil Postman wrote, “Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see.” Whether you are at the beginning, managing through the middle, or approaching the end of your career as a mathematics teacher, ask yourself about the messages that you are currently writing to the future. Are your passion for mathematics and your love for learning included in your message to your students? Do your enthusiasm and your support for your students serve as permanent markers for your message? You most likely will never know how far your message will travel, but you must write it through your students—day after day after day.


Tom EvitsTom Evitts, TAEvit@ship.edu, is a mathematics teacher educator at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania and is the current president of the Pennsylvania Association of Mathematics Teacher Educators (PAMTE). He is a frequent presenter at NCTM annual and regional meetings and enjoys helping others find, make, and strengthen mathematical connections.


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