Why We Teach

In this era of COVID-19, it can be easy to lose track of the big picture and get caught up in all the details. I was reminded of this the other day, when a former student, who I hadn’t heard from in a decade, posted a comment and tagged me in Facebook. She mentioned something I had said (yes, it was a compliment, not a complaint). We commented a little back and forth, and another student chimed in, mentioning another class.

What this reminded me of is something I have always felt. We teach, not for the class or the test or the essays students write, but for the future. I care more about what a student will take from my class four, five, even ten years later, though more times than not, this is something I never know. It’s rare to see a comment like this or to run into a student and have them tell you in person. And that is how it should be (though it’s incredibly rewarding when you do hear from students).

Education is not about immediate or even tangible results. Of course, we give tests and papers, and we want to push students to excel and we want those tangible results. But the bigger point is what happens later. It’s great to see our students succeed after they graduate, and it’s great to find out that something we said or taught mattered. I try to remember that students who struggle in a class, who may earn a B or C or even lower, may still be the ones who get the most out of it. They may not be able to show ‘mastery of the material’ during that semester, but if something sticks with them, then the seed is planted and they will benefit in some way, someday, maybe in unexpected ways.

It’s hard to remember this when we’re all struggling to keep up and to stay connected with students who are suddenly being taught at a distance. Our struggle to keep teaching and our attempts to be fair and yet to be as rigorous as possilbe will be a big part of what makes an impact. The most important lessons taught in a class are often tangential to the material that is covered. The greatest lesson can often be given just by caring enough about every student, meeting them where they are, and helping them improve. In the end, it’s not about the grades and it’s not about the degree; it’s about that human interaction, communication, and faith in each other.

Published by Kendall Dunkelberg

I am a poet, translator, and professor of literature and creative writing at Mississippi University for Women, where I direct the Low-Res MFA in Creative Writing, the undergraduate concentration in creative writing, and the Eudora Welty Writers' Symposium. I have published three books of poetry, Barrier Island Suite, Time Capsules, and Landscapes and Architectures, as well as a collection of translations of the Belgian poet Paul Snoek, Hercules, Richelieu, and Nostradamus. I live in Columbus with my wife, Kim Whitehead; son, Aidan; and dog, Aleida.

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