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Lessons My Students Have Taught Me

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According to my social media feeds, National Teacher Appreciation Day was May 7th. Reading posts thanking teachers and mentors last week led me to think a lot about what my years in the college classroom have meant to me personally. Although in higher education we are called “professors,” when it comes down to what we do day in and day out, we are teachers.

Rather than rehash what I’ve “given” to my students over the years, this week I’d like to share three lessons I have learned from my students:

First, most days the most important contribution I can make to the classroom is a positive attitude. My students are working long hours at low-paying jobs and caring for children and/or parents, in addition to the demands of their academic schedule. They need supportive reminders that their hard work is going to pay off in the long term even more than they need to hear my assessment of the newest publications on slavery or 19th-century urbanization. I’ve witnessed first-hand that some days the encouragement of a teacher is the only thing keeping my students from deciding that the demands of finishing their education is too much.

Second, human beings learn best from our failures. Conversations with students who are failing a course because of bad decision-making, poor planning, or plagiarism are heartbreaking for us teachers. On more than one occasion, however, I have heard from students months or years later that my having held them accountable for their actions in the classroom led to a positive change in their life. I’ve also had the great fortune of what I call “repeat” students: those who failed my course and chose to do a retake with me. Seeing these students successfully pass a course the second-time-around is immensely gratifying

Finally, “to those who much is given, much is expected.” My brother wrote this quote -- attributed to President John Kennedy among others -- in a book he gave me many, many years ago when I was starting graduate school. The degree I was pursuing at the time was funded by a generous tuition scholarship and teaching assistant-ship. It was not until I had been teaching at a community college for several years and came across his handwriting in that book that I really thought about what that quote meant. My students remind me every single day to value my education and the sacrifices that were made along the way.

Those of us who have had the privilege of earning graduate degrees in the humanities have so much to offer our students. Their desire to learn from us -- to be our students -- is truly a gift that we should not take for granted.

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About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.