Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Teaching Legacies

It's easy as a teacher-- particularly if you've taught in a single school for a lot of your career-- to think of your legacy being in the building or in some program that you created or nurtured. But that's not it.

As you approach retirement, you may notice (if you haven't already) that no matter how ever-present and plugged in you may be, no matter how many invaluable extras you provide, once you are gone, every trace of you vanishes pretty quickly. Your room is redecorated, your furniture gets divided up by your former colleagues, and as for your standing within those four walls...

The year you announce your retirement: The Legendary Mrs. McTeach
First year you're gone: It's so weird without Mrs. McTeach here.
Second year: Yeah, I sort of remember a Mrs. McTeach
Third year: Mrs. McTeach? Didn't she used to teach here?
Fourth year: Who?

It's the nature of schools-- students pass through pretty quickly, even though they feel like they've been there for a thousand years. 

Actually, your legacy has left the building long before you have.

Right now I'm in the middle of overseeing a local writing competition, operated for twenty-some years now in honor of Margaret Feldman. Let me tell you about her.

She was born and raised in this small town. Her father made a smallish fortune by inventing and selling a watch lubricant and running a jewelry store (most of the smallish fortunes in my area came from something to do with oil). He was also an accomplished musician. Margaret was an athlete in high school, graduated early, and attended college. From there, she eventually ended up in DC working for the OSS (the precursor of the CIA) which she did for many years, before finally coming back home and teaching English at the high school where I graduated and taught. She was fearless and feisty, but also very proper. By the time I was a student, she was occasionally subbing. By the time I was on staff, she had stepped back from that, but she still ran a summer literature program for some students. She copied off the New York Times crossword puzzles and put them in teachers' mailboxes, and stopped by to chat. 

She new all sorts of people, mostly from her time in DC, and she was a source of inspiration to the generation of students who had her in class. When Aunt Peg passed away, the most immediate reaction of those students (now long-matured men and women) was to collect money to set up a foundation in her name. One ongoing function of that foundation has been to stage an essay competition for students throughout the county in her name. 

Keeping that competition afloat this year is a labor of love for me on two counts. The competition has been run by a woman who came to town and was befriended by Peg, who then recommended her to the district when an opening appeared in the department--that was my long-time teaching partner, who passed away suddenly and unexpectedly less than a year ago. So I'm working to keep the project afloat in memory of both of them.

That is what a teacher's legacy looks like-- grown-ups out in the world making use of the tools that teachers gave them years ago. If you teach in a small town, you get to appreciate that legacy a bit more. My hair is cut, my teeth cleaned, my car fixed, my food prepared, and my path just regularly crossed by students that I have taught over the decades. That, and the internet makes the whole world a little smaller, too. 

Teaching is one of the rare fields in which, like a blindfolded gardener, you never get to see the end product. You get a hint, a glimpse of the outlines, as the students head out the door. But so often you don't get to know the rest of the story. You can look around your room, your building, but your legacy is not there. It's out there, somewhere, in the world. Maybe a bit in your colleagues. A foundation funded by former students is nice, but not everyone gets that and anyway, you aren't around to see it. 

This is why, for years, I've said the best Teacher Appreciation Week gift is a personal, handwritten-on-paper note. Though advocating for public education is right up there, too. And some folks would do well to spread their appreciation out over the year, rather than being appreciative for one week and a jerk for the other fifty-one. 

But a note. A note is nice. You are somebody's legacy, and it means something to them to hear that you appreciate their role, back in the day, in your life. I guarantee it.


  1. I am four years away from retiring, and this entry really hit home. Your suggestion about notes is absolutely spot-on! After a night of parent conferences years ago, I hunted down my old 8th grade science teacher on Facebook and sent her a message telling her how much she had meant to me. It shocked her to hear from a student thirty years after the fact, but she was happy to hear that she had been appreciated. As a teacher, I put a box of blank index cards and a "ballot" box out for kids to leave me a message in lieu of a yearbook signature so I can remember them once they are gone. I've had some really sweet, heartfelt notes that have kept me going when times are rough.

  2. The "blindfolded gardener" reference is an apt depiction of teaching. The big pay off for teachers is something they rarely get to see. It is their students making their way in the real world, not performing on standardized tests.