Standing in the grocery store, deciding which hot sauce to buy, I feel the weight of a young man’s gaze. I glance at him furtively, desperately trying to place him among the 400 students I’ve taught in the last 13 years. We make small talk, and, thankfully, he appears to assume everyone over 35 suffers from memory loss, because he tells me his name, graduating year and which of my classes he was in.
I find these exchanges to be anxiety-inducing. I’m so happy to see him doing well but boy, do they make me feel old and awkward.
But for some teachers, this chance to catch up with former students is very welcome.
And for those educators who have spent their lives in the classroom, not only do they run into former students, they often find out they’re teaching the children of former students, and even the grandchildren. Unlike me, these teachers often relish the chance to reconnect with students across the generations.
Bill Tyler, who taught math on and off in London for 55 years, says meeting ex-students after they’ve grown into adults can be a strange experience and, he says, laughing, “a reminder of my mortality.”
He has also taught multiple students who were the children of past pupils. He recalls many parent-teacher meetings during which he spent more time discussing the parent’s progress, since becoming an adult, than the child’s.
Towards the end of his career, Tyler had a young boy in his class who looked strangely familiar. At the school’s end-of-year barbecue the boy’s grandmother walked up to Tyler and he suddenly realized she had been one of his very first students. What was it like to teach three generations of the same family? “They were very similar,” he says. “Once I knew all the connections, I was reminded of little idiosyncratic behaviors and sayings they all shared.”
He describes how they had a particular way of figuring out a math problem: “All three members of that family poked their tongue out slightly when working on a tricky equation and they all used a strategy of rounding numbers into groups for counting. It was uncanny.”
Tyler says that seeing three generations together at the barbecue and knowing that he had taught them all basic math skills that they probably used quite a bit, made him feel proud and like he still had a purpose.
“Getting older sometimes makes you feel like you don’t have any effect on life around you anymore. You’re a spectator. But they reminded me that I had a positive impact on others. I was still in the game.”
Adrienne Carr taught physics and chemistry for 49 years in Ontario, Canada, before retiring recently. Looking back over her long career, she believes that over time she became a better teacher, which makes sense. The National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research studied the relationship between teacher experience and teacher productivity and confirmed what many of us know anecdotally: Teacher experience benefits students considerably.
For Carr, her years in the classroom made her appreciate a more holistic view of child psychology and development.
“I believe that with experience and maturity, I became a much better teacher. Over time I came to realize that confrontational situations were rarely related to the classroom but more often to outside factors. It really changed how I disciplined,” she says.
She says that teaching students’ parents helped her to understand the family dynamics and personal circumstances, and contributed to her improving the way she dealt with student behavior.
For example, she praised positive behavior and actions instead of punishing bad behavior, or losing her temper.
During one school orientation night, a mother of a student approached Carr and asked, “Do you remember me?” Carr had been the woman’s chemistry teacher years before, and, it turned out, Carr had also taught the woman’s husband.
She says this created a familiarity and a bond between the parents, Carr and the new student, their daughter, who was currently in Carr’s class. This made her discussions with the family easy. Positive relationships between parents and teachers are of vital importance to a child’s success.
“When students would come back from university and seek me out, it gave me such affirmation. I loved interacting with them, spending time with them, advising them, planning trips with them, and meeting their parents,” she says.
Bee Richard-Lehner, who worked in Ohio as a teacher and principal from 1970 on, is the president-elect of the Ohio Retired Teachers Association. Richard-Lehner has talked with a variety of experienced teachers and found it common for long-serving educators to teach multiple generations of the same family.
Richard-Lehner loves to make these connections with past students and, like many teachers, she finds a real sense of achievement in those students who required extra work.
“I remember a young gal who was quite a behavior problem in the classroom. Years later, we met and she came up to hug me and said how much she loved me for getting her the help she needed,” she says.
This sort of validation is often what makes teaching so worthwhile.
But like everything in life, teaching has seasons, and Richard-Lehner heeded the call when it seemed like time to move on. “When I first began to teach, the children would sometimes call me ‘Mom.’ When they started calling me ‘Grandma’ I knew it was time to retire,” she says.
Tracey Stabback has been teaching music in her own music studio in Ontario, Canada, for the past 25 years, as well as working in private elementary and music schools. Stabback gives private lessons.
When the families of her students attend recitals, and see the progress the musicians make, it often leads them to want to take lessons themselves.
“I have taught many students whose parents then decided to take lessons. In one case I have taught an adult, then their adult children and now I am teaching the grandchildren. I had one family where I have taught everyone in the immediate family (both parents and children), and another family where I have taught all of the children, one of the parents, and the cousins,” she says.
Stabback sees many benefits to teaching multiple generations.
“When parents have been a student of mine, they generally have a better understanding of what their child is going through. In terms of singing or piano, they then have a better idea of my expectations. It can open doors for better discussions and for more teamwork between the parent, child and teacher,” she says.
Running into former students after they have grown up and left school might make me feel a tad uncomfortable but really, it’s a tremendous privilege. It can cement your status in the community as an authority figure and a champion of education. It’s a chance to see how your life’s work has made an impact on people as they grow and develop, and it’s one of the main reasons teachers teach.
By Fiona Tapp. Fiona Tapp is a freelance writer and educator. Her work has been featured on The Washington Post, New York Post, HuffPost, Brides, Parent.co. SheKnows and more.
This article was originally published by Bright. Bright is made possible by funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Bright retains editorial independence. The Creative Commons license applies only to the text of this article.