One of the wonderful things about the teaching life is that – when we are very lucky – we get to see the adults our students become. This past weekend, I got to see Spirit Family Reunion play a concert here in Philadelphia. They are a wonderful “Roots Music” band out of New York City, and three of the musicians are former students of mine from my days at Beacon.
The show was amazing, and I don’t think I stopped smiling the entire time. And it was a blast to see some Philadelphia folks who were at the concert as fans of the band, and since I was — ahem – a bit older than the average concert-goer, there was some surprise from these young Philadelphians that I was there. That gave me the chance to brag that “I was friends the band…” which is not exactly something I expect to say often in my life.
More importantly, I relished the chance to spend some time after the show talking to my former students. It was simply lovely to hear about their lives, to hear about the band, and I was touched that they were excited that I had stayed up late enough to come out and hear them play.
Mostly, I was thrilled to see the adults they have become, and I was honored that they wanted to share their adulthood with me, their old English teacher.
I’ve been teaching for eighteen years now. My first seniors are in their mid-30s. I have seen students become parents. I have seen them become PhDs. I have seen students become teachers and lawyers and doctors and programmers and police officers and artists and musicians and more. I have written letters to them in prison. Some former students are now some of my very dear friends. I have celebrated at their weddings, I have met their children and, sadly, I have mourned at their funerals.
And this is more than just an ancillary piece of the teaching life. The perspective of seeing students become adults can powerfully inform the way we teach. Knowing that we can play a small role in helping students on the pathway to adulthood is something that teachers are taught to understand from early on in most pre-service teacher programs, but the reality of knowing the your students as adults is different somehow.
There’s a humility needed to really see them as adults. If you don’t merely want to be part of their past, you have to learn who you are to the person they are now. And you have to see all that they are now, not only the student they were then. You do see the person they were as part of their adult self, but you have to see all that they are. On one level, you feel a little like Billy Pilgrim, unstuck in time, seeing two people at once – the young person you know and the adult in front of you who you now get to know. And seeing that journey can — and maybe should — inform the way we work with the kids we teach now.
As teachers, we get to play a role in the development of the lives of our kids. More often than not, the role we play is small but, if we do it right, the role has meaning. And when we are lucky, we get to know the adults our students become.