Students in my formative years as a teacher

Dear Judy

What a delightful evening it was running into you again after so many years. When you smiled to me, and tried to make conversation, I sensed that you had to be one of my former students. But having taught for almost 4 decades, I now have so many former students that I don’t always recall their names when I run into them in public places. Sometimes I may even have difficulty recognising them. Hence, I really felt flattered that you could tell who I was as soon as you saw me.

My heartfelt thanks for your warm welcome, which made me feel like a VIP, and the special treats you gave me and my family. My daughter joked that after working for so many years as a teacher, I finally got some benefits from a former student.

My first few years of teaching were particularly memorable to me, as I struggled to build my teacher identity, searched for the meaning of teaching, and of life, and experimented with different ways of teaching. Hence, as a young teacher, my students in my formative years were important to me as they helped me to grow, and to shape the teacher that I became later in my career.

And I am not sure whether this is a coincidence or not: the students I had in the earlier stages of my teaching career have turned out to be the ones who have remembered me the most. If I may generalise a bit (while being aware that other people may not agree with me), teacher-student relationships seemed to be stronger in the past than they are today. The students I have had in the last ten years, for example, have generally been less eager to stay in touch after they finished with me. This is despite the fact that, at least as far as I am conscious of, my passion in teaching has not diminished. One indication of this contrast is that the get-together invitations I have received in the last few months came mainly from those I taught in my first twenty years of teaching!

I have been trying to figure out what has led to this difference. Of course, the easiest explanation is that times have changed. Students in the seventies and eighties grew up in an era where interpersonal ties were usually stronger, where people had more respect for teachers, and where students naturally revered, liked, and were thankful to their teachers. In contrast, today students grew up in a much more materialistic society where teachers are only ‘service providers’. As soon as their service is not needed, they can also be dispensed with.

But I know I shouldn’t just jump to this conclusion. Another possible explanation is that my earlier students have now gone through the many trials and tribulations of life, have put personal worldly achievements in proper perspective, or have simply learnt to love better, so that they are now unconsciously trying to rediscover the meaning of life through connecting themselves with their past: their school buddies, and their former teachers.

Thank you Judy for your warm reception this evening. I am so lucky to have so many wonderful former students like you. While catching up with you, I suddenly felt glad that I had played a part, although a small one, in your life. And wonderful former students like you are testimony that I chose the right job.

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