Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Treasuring the Work: Portraits of our Students

Battles with educational bureaucracies can be brutal. Seemingly simple requests require forms, signatures, and endless steps in an archaic process journey. Tangling with temperamental technology can tempt the most dedicated educator to throw their hands up in disgust. The bits and bytes seem to conspire to make the task of engaging digital-age students a daunting one. And clashing with colleagues that seem dead set on demonizing the best-intentioned innovations you champion can cause you to ask the question, “Why do I put myself through all this?”

Here’s why. *Portraits of Life: Student Experiences is an exhibit showcased at Montgomery College in Maryland. It’s a tribute in words and photographs to diverse students that chose education as their pathway to possibilities. It’s a powerful look at the faces and places of these students, their stories, and the futures to which they aspire. Moreover, it’s a useful reminder of the reasons most of us champion education—to change lives for the better and, by extension, make our world a better place.

During one of the focus groups we did for the book Practical Magic: On the Front Lines of Teaching Excellence, a seasoned instructor told us one of her secrets. She said that she kept a “treasure chest” of student evaluation comments, personal notes, stories from her journal, and clippings of her students successes packed away in a special box. When we asked her why, she said the reasoning was simple. “There are many times in your career that you question your worth, your sanity, or your ability to really make a difference. There are times you feel like, despite your best intentions, you’ve just been punched in the gut. These are the times you need to cook your favorite meal, pour a glass of good wine, and open your treasure chest. You need to remember your whys for all this work.”

The Portraits of Life showcase is a moving visual treasure chest of student stories. These are powerful whys. None of these stories excuse the sloppy systems, troubling technology, or cultural challenges we sometimes face in education. However, they do give us good reasons to do the important work of improving our schools, colleges, and universities so that we can teach and reach well the students who come our way—students working for brighter tomorrows after often-challenging yesterdays.

*This effort showcasing students followed an earlier project that profiled Holocaust Survivors (absolutely worth a look as well).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

At age 62 I can still remember going to a Catholic school and listening to the Nuns share stories about missionaries. I never thought until reading the stories of these students that our colleges allow us to be missionaries in our own small way. I taught one student from Gabon how to drive a car. My spouse co-signed a note for another African student to buy a car. A GCC counselor waited with a student for hours at a health clinic to get medicine. At Grayson we have about 200 international students that daily provide us small ways to make the world a better place at the same time that they illuminate all of the blessings we take for granted for which we should be thankful.
Although I'm a college president, I also keep a "treasure chest" of thank you's to stave off despair. Yet, these student portraits give us far more reason to stay the course inspite of our daily challenges. Mark, thanks for your post and your inspiration.