Classroom memories: good and bad and what makes them so

We’ve carried accounts of teachers and students meeting after many years, and by these accounts the experiences have been moving and have reinforced one’s belief that despite the drudgery of everyday work, there are moments that make teaching worthwhile, and that connections do get made, in conscious and unconscious ways. We are surprised by the quiet backbencher who, twenty years later, turns up in your staff room with a story of change that you had no idea you had started. Or the class troublemaker, who brings in the spouse and two children, having grown into a sensitive, responsible adult. Or the consistent D-grader that you read about in a newspaper, who has created a work of art or literature. No matter what the passage of years has wrought (or brought), such meetings remind you that every encounter, and every relationship works to make you who you are – and that the influence is (almost) never one way. For every student who claims that I have had an influence on her life, I can count perhaps ten more that have had an impact on the way I teach, and in fact what I choose to teach. It is extremely humbling to be told that you have had an influence, or that you have catalyzed ideas and thinking in some way. The truth is that this influence comes about as a result of a complex combination of circumstances of which you are only one small part. But it is also true that these chance moments of impact come about because one is open to them, because one has created a classroom environment within which good things can happen.

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Of course, there are also many students who never come back, some of whom maybe have not-very-happy memories of school and learning. For whom the classroom was at best an indifferent space and at worst a place of unhappiness and even cruelty, imagined or real. And here is something the mindful teacher can help avoid. While we do not have to “try” too hard to bring about positive influences in a child’s life and learning, we do have to constantly try as hard as we can to avoid or minimize the possibility of negative experiences in the classroom. This effort may not be noticed as much, but the climate it generates in the classroom will be the context within which many, serendipitous, happy experiences will occur – and be remembered.