Monday, November 22, 2004

Thank You Emails, or, How to Get Into Heaven Sooner

This morning I received an email from a former student who had taken classes with me back in 1997-98. It was gracious and kind, thanking me for making a real difference in his life. He has found a way to make a career out of what I had taught him.

As an educator, that absolutely made my day. I’m sure it didn’t take more than a few minutes to write, but I’ll be dining out on that one for weeks.

There’s a proverb attributed to Henry Adams, to the effect that a teacher never knows where his influence ends. It’s true, but it’s easy to lose sight of that in the quotidian flow of events.

Ironically enough, given the direction many of my posts have taken, this student’s first course with me was when I was an adjunct. I got hired full-time after that, and he took a second course with me when I was on staff. My adjunct semester was very much an audition period, so I gave it everything I had. Somehow, I think that’s different from ‘perpetual adjunct’ status, which so many academics find themselves consigned to now.

I remember hearing a theory that student course evaluations should be given about three years after the conclusion of the course – see what held up over time, rather than how entertaining the course was. There’s something to that, even if it would be institutionally more-or-less impossible.

Last year I did something similar, sending a thank-you email to my 9th grade English teacher. She was incredibly demanding – I used to refer to her as the ‘Grammar Nazi’ – but I never learned more in a class than I did in hers. Remarkably, twenty years later, she was still at the same school, with the same name. 9th grade English pretty much exemplifies “Thankless Job,” so I thought she deserved thanks. It didn’t take long to do, but I felt like I had made a small payment on a life debt, and her response was sweet and touching.

Teachers’ pay is famously underwhelming, but once in a while, the benefits can be really something.