TITLE: What Teachers Make
AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford
DATE: May 15, 2012 3:22 PM
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
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