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One of the greatest pleasures a teacher enjoys is a conversation or correspondence from a former student.  As a high school teacher, I loved watching my students mature from intimidated freshmen into seniors ready to take on the world.  Keeping in touch with them after their last year in the public school system has become a lot easier since the onset of online social networking.  Observing where students go and what they do after high school can be truly inspiring for teachers as they deal with a new crop of students each year.

It can be hard for teachers to keep perspective during the school year as they try to stay ahead of the exhaustion and testing pressures and the every day challenges of working with diverse groups of students.  Staying in touch with our students can be a gift that keeps on giving in times of stress and professional strain.  For me, when a giant Reduction in Force in my district resulted in the loss of my position, my sense of loss at not having my classroom of students was tremendous.  But a major support and help to me as I have journeyed from that moment through a couple of years of unemployment and underemployment has been my contact with former students.  They never fail to encourage me and to remind me of why I was so passionate about teaching in the first place.

All of my former students from the school at which I used to teach have graduated from high school and moved into their adult lives.  Some are in college, some have already graduated college, and some are years into career fields they entered after high school.  Some of my students are raising their own children, some are traveling the world or pursuing graduate degrees, and some have become teachers!  The really amazing thing to me is that all of these young adults came out of one of the most crowded and diverse urban schools in the state, they grew up surrounded by poverty and struggle, and they had to fight for everything they have achieved.  I am so proud of each of them and each one of them inspires me as I continue my own path as an educator.

Because it has been a continual source of inspiration for me to see the variety of paths my students have taken, I thought it would be interesting to ask them about how they view high school and their experience of it now that they are several years removed from it (but still close enough to remember it!).  Examining a variety of different student stories — including the choices they made while in high school and how those choices might or might not have impacted their early adult lives — might be instructive for us in understanding our influence as teachers.

This article starts a new series I am calling “Life After High School.”  This summer I am conducting a series of interviews with young adults about their high school experiences and the paths they’ve taken since.  Telling the stories of young people only a few years removed from their high school experiences may give us some insight into what is truly important in a high school education.  We insist that teachers are the experts when it comes to education, and that is true – but there are other experts that we often leave out of the conversation on policy and standards: the students.  How policy actually plays out for students, and the impact it has on them after they leave the system, is an important aspect to figuring out how best to provide a holistic, quality education to our students.

Perhaps the stories of my former students will remind you of your own.  Maybe this summer will provide you some opportunities to engage in conversations with your former students and learn from them about how your own best practices have impacted them.  I hope that you will be inspired by these stories and challenged by the insights these former students share about their own experiences.  In the interviews, they discuss how their imagined life paths differed from what they have actually chosen.  They share what teachers influenced them the most and why.  And they provide unique perspective on education policy and what standards have truly made a difference for their academic and personal lives.

Who you are as an educator and a person matters to your students.  And it has long lasting impact.  Knowing that when they are in their 20’s and on, they will remember you for one reason or another can influence the way you relate to them while they are in your classroom.  No matter what subject you teach or what pressures you or your students must face with regard to curriculum, it is you that matters most.

In the words of one of my former students:

The teacher! The teacher is everything! I was 10 times more likely to fail a class if the teacher and I butted heads, or if it was clear the teacher really didn’t like kids or hated her job.

Keeping ourselves going, retaining our energy, our love for the job and our interest in what we teach is a constant challenge.  Perhaps hearing the stories of these individual young people who pass through our classrooms will feed that passion a little more – that precious stuff a teacher needs to keep going in these times.  It’s easy to lose sight of the point of being a teacher amidst all the pressure and exhaustion.  But maybe a few stories will remind us of why we stay: the students.[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]

Cari Zall has been a Social Sciences educator for over 12 years, in both brick & mortar and online...

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