TITLE: What Teachers Make AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: May 15, 2012 3:22 PM DESC: ----- BODY: Last night I attended my daughter's high school orchestra concert. (She plays violin.) Early on I found myself watching the conductor rather than the performers. He was really into the performance, as many conductors are. He's a good teacher and gets pretty good sound out of a few dozen teenagers. Surely he must be proud of their performance, and at least a little proud of his own. Maybe it's just the end of another academic year, but my next thought was, "This concert will be over in an hour." My mind flashed to a movie from the 1990s, Mr. Holland's Opus. What does the conductor feel like when it's over? Is there a sense of emptiness? What does he think about, knowing that he'll being doing this all again next year, just as he did last year? The faces will change, and maybe the musical selections, but the rest will be eerily familiar. Then it occurred to me: This is the plight of every teacher. It is mine. Sometimes I envy people who make things for a living. They create something that people see and use. In the case of software, they may have the opportunity to grow their handiwork, to sustain it. It's tangible. It lasts, at least for a while. Teachers live in a different world. I think about my own situation, teaching one class a semester, usually in our upper division. Every couple of years, I see a new group of students. I have each of them in class once or twice, maybe even a few times. Then May comes, and they graduate. To the extent that I create anything, it resides in someone else. In this way, being a teacher less like being a writer or a creator and more like being a gardener. We help prepare others to make and do. Like gardeners, we plant seeds. Some fall on good soil and flourish. Some fall on rocks and die. Sometimes, you don't even know which is which; you find out only years later. I have been surprised in both ways, more often pleasantly than not. Sure, we build things, too. We CS profs write software. We university profs build research programs. These are tangible products, and they last for a while. (We administrators create documents and spreadsheets. Let's not go there.) But these products are not our primary task, at least not at schools like mine. It is teaching. We help students exercise their minds and grow their skills. If we are lucky, we change them in ways that go beyond our particular disciplines. There is a different sort of rhythm to being a teacher than to being a maker. You need to be able to delay gratification, while enjoying the connections you make with students and ideas. That's one reason it's not so easy for just anyone to be a teacher, at least not for an entire career. My daughter's orchestra teacher seems to have that rhythm. I have been finding this rhythm over the course of my career, without quite losing the desire also to make things I can touch and use and share. -----