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–an installment in the ongoing series The Unemployed Teacher

orange_treeI enjoyed a two hour coffee get together with one of my former students the other day.  I was so energized after that meeting – and as I reflected on how proud I was of the path my student had followed after graduating from high school, and how happy I was just to have been able to hear all the news and share advice and ideas about our professional ventures – I realized my greatest reward as a teacher has been to see the lives my students have gone on to live after having spent time in my classroom.  I never realized when I started teaching how validating and energizing my relationships with my students would be… after they left high school.

My first year of teaching, I wondered how I would ever remember the names of all 190+ teenagers that filed in and out of my classroom during each semester.  I will never forget the first time I walked through the crowded halls of the high school about two weeks into that school year, and out of the din came a ringing “Hey, Mz. H!” from one of my new students.  The burst of energy I got from knowing who that student was and that he bothered with a shout out to me in the hall dampened all my fears about not being able to get to know all my students.  In the years that followed, I developed systems for myself to get to know each of my students and learn their names as quickly as possible.  I tried to insert as much student-choice into my curriculum so that each of them could pursue and demonstrate their unique interests and abilities within the context of what we were learning.  That allowed me to get to know them better, even while we learned.

The first time I had a graduating class that I had known since they were freshmen was a huge milestone moment for me.  Watching those students mature and progress from young adolescents to young adults ready to take on the world imbued me with a sense of wonder and anticipation for them.  I had invested years – for some of them, all four years – into a part of their high school education and their lives, and I wondered: would it last?  Would they remember things they’d learned?  Would they continue to learn and seek knowledge and understanding like we practiced in class?  Would they become active members of their communities and civic participants?

I had several teachers in high school that made a huge difference in my life.  When I graduated, the only way to stay in touch was writing letters.  I made attempts to write to several of them but the connections weren’t sustainable.  I would have loved to have had a way to connect back with them when I had questions or wanted advice that I knew they could provide.  I didn’t want my connection with my students to just end when they left high school.  Thinking about that, I considered how I could stay in touch with these kids that meant so much to me.  Back then, Facebook was still more popular between college students and was just at the beginning of its social networking domination.  It seemed like the perfect way to stay in touch, so my first Facebook page was developed for the sole purpose of staying connected with my students after they graduated.  It’s still in use – I post news articles and ideas, and we engage in conversation about all kinds of issues. I get to see how they’re progressing in life, and they can contact me easily.  I’ve been able to provide recommendations, references, and some help with college work. It’s basically an ongoing reunion that stays active every day.

Many of my alumni are graduated from college and have moved into their professional lives, or into graduate school.  Some of them are married, and some are parents now.  I have among my alumni artists, chefs, writers, members of the military, musicians, scientists, managers and political workers.  Some of them are traveling the world, living and studying in other countries, and some are becoming teachers!  We now consider ourselves friends and colleagues. They have developed expertise in areas in which I can now go to them for advice and guidance.  And I am so, so proud of them.

When I got laid off two years ago, my connections with my former students became even more important to me.  Losing my classroom was difficult on many levels.  One of the things that kept my heart and mind afloat, especially in the early days after my lay-off, was that all of my former students surrounded me with support and encouragement.  My investment in their lives returned to me in multiple ways, just when I needed it.  Now, some of us get together regularly, for coffee or a meal.  We engage in conversations over social networking and email. It is always a lift to my spirits and a rejuvenating experience to chat with one of my former students.  It may be a long time until I can return to teaching in a high school – I may never be able to return – but the opportunity to teach has given me far more than amazing experiences in a classroom.  The ongoing rewards of pursuing my passion for education are made evident to me all the time in the lives of my alumni.

Teaching definitely doesn’t come with a lot of instant gratification.  But if you’re willing to wait and cultivate the seeds that you plant, the fruit of your labor will come back to you in unexpected and wonderful ways. There is definitely life after high school… for all of us.

To buy Cari’s book that details her sudden unemployment, “How to Finish the Test When Your Pencil Breaks” please click here


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

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