Did It Sink In Right Away?

Recently, I listened to some professional musicians talking at a barbeque about their favorite music teachers.  There was a bit of a boasting session going on, each musician offering up the story of the best musician/teacher they’d had the opportunity to study with, even if it was just one or two lessons.  One of the musicians, a bass player, caught my attention when he said,

“Whenever I’ve studied with someone really good, it doesn’t sink in right away.  It takes many years for me to really get everything they were trying to show me.”

The other musicians nodded in agreement. His statement rang true for me as well.  Some lessons you can learn right away but the most significant ones often take a long time. That has been my experience with my mentor from Bank Street, Madeleine Ray.  It has taken me ten years to truly understand on a deep level much of what she began teaching me years ago.

The musicians were making the point that they could savor even a few music lessons with a master teacher, since it took so much practice to fully integrate them into their skill and knowledge bases.  As a middle school English teacher, of course I connected this to my own students.  I’ve always thought that the impact I have on them can only partially be seen in the time I spend with them.  One of the mysterious and beautiful things about teaching is that we never really know the long-term impact of our work. Am I frustrated by this limitation? For some reason, I’m not. I do my best and my students do too.  If they come back and visit later and I se that they’re doing well, I’m happy for them and I smile that I’ve contributed in some way to where they are now.

I also connected the musicians’ conversation to our public school’s current invesntment in measuring short-term results of teaching through standardized tests.  In addition to all of the other limits of these tests, it seems that it’s been decided (by people outside our profession) that only the short-term impact of our teaching matters.  Immediate results may be easier to measure, but this practice is very shortsighted.  It misunderstands the nature of the teacher-student relationship and the role of experience in deep learning.

What skills that you learned from teachers sunk in right away for you?  What skills or understandings took much longer?  In these cases, did your earlier teachers fail because you had a moment of crystallization years later?  Did you fail because it didn’t all sink in right away?

Related categories:
  • AleshaDaughtrey

    Ariel, your post is so

    Ariel, your post is so important in helping us think about how the TRUE effects of great teaching can only be seen in the long view. I know I am still learning from my 5th grade teacher about creativity and persistence…more years later than I care to think about! 🙂 Your post also made me think about the study that came out last year showing that effective teachers not only impacted students’ learning but also increased the chances that they would attend college, avoid unplanned early pregnancies, and earn more once they entered their chosen careers. I hope anyone who’s thinking about ways to improve teaching evaluations reads your blog!

    • ArielSacks

      Long term teacher evaluation?

      Alesha, the results of this research are powerful–and this is evidence enough for me that the long term impact of teaching is a very important piece of the big picture. But it would be almost impossible to include this piece in teacher evaluation–and if we could get this data on individual teachers, what exactly would it be useful for? 

    • zep

      did it sink in right away

      Thanks for the excellent post. It seems common sense that the impact of quality teachers and/or quality schools isn’t felt for years. This being the case it seems equally obvious that the only valid and reliable assessment model is lonigitudinal qualitative studies of students 10,20,30 years after they’ve left our classrooms. Its all too timely to discuss the err in using immediate quantitative data for any honest assessment.

  • SandyMerz

    Walkin’ away

    I’ve always enjoyed running into former students who are now adults.  They have little memory, nor, I’m sure, can conceive of how dreadful they were as 8th graders.  We sure didn’s see much sinking at the time.  This happens most at the beginning of the school year.  I’ve been at the same school since the late ’80s and have many students whose parents are former students.  The parents will often greet me with a hug and talk about how they remembered and liked my class.  And I’m thinking, “What happened to you?  We had you written off! And here you are looking great and happy and well to do.”  Ok, I’ve learned never to write anyone off, but I hope the point is clear.  We have to realize that a lag exists between all our teaching of what matters and the  time for it to take.

    In my own case, I”m going to say that what I didn’t know I was learning at the time, but what has made a huge difference came from sports.  The lesson was when you’ve given something enough time to know for real if it’s time to walk away.  That can mean anything from a math problem to a major life change.  The corollary would be that staying with something too long (from a math problem to a life change) can be as bad as giving up too soon.

  • ArielSacks

    Sandy, that’s interesting! I

    Sandy, that’s interesting! I see the connection with learning… how do you connect this idea to teaching?

  • billferriter

    Great Reminder, Pal…

    I think what frustrates me in this conversation, Ariel, is that EVERYONE knows that you are right — that the long term impact of teachers is FAR more important than anything we measure in the short term.

    EVERYONE knows it — and yet we still allow our elected officials to cheapen our system by over-emphasizing the short term results in our quest to “hold schools accountable.”

    Cheap trumps meaningful every time — and it exhausts me. 

    Hope you’re well!  I miss “seeing” you but I love reading your work.


  • Kate Nonesuch

    adult literacy and numeracy

    Here’s my best story about a student who came to class once, and said it changed her life: http://katenonesuch.com/2012/06/20/yahtzee/

    Really more about her than about my work!

  • DavidCohen

    Right on


    This post has me nodding in agreement, just like your musician friends. (I have this image of you and Lo Primo and this cool New York bohemian musical scene… but I digress). I think it’s vital to my sense of myself and my students. Having been around for a while, I have many former students now well into their adulthood, and I’ve had several experiences that reinforce what you’re describing. Former students and parents have thanked me for work that seemed, on the surface, entirely ineffective. Students who struggled, flailed, spent their year with me in the grip of depression, addiction, and other problems – have come back later and thanked me, and I didn’t understand why at first. But something was sinking in. I’ve had a student who almost ignored me for the 2 years after she was in my class come back and tell me how I influenced her college course choices and study abroad. Our impact is potentially much larger than any daily, standards-based objectives. I tell my students often that we will be adult peers for much, much longer than we will be teacher and students – and it’s my future peers that I’m trying to teach.

  • KrisGiere


    I’ve read and reread this post of yours because I believe what you say is true.  I know that the measurement for whether or not my students have learned from me is only partially tied to the exam or essay they’ve turned in.  Where I pause is in answering your title question: “Did it sink in right away?”

    All I can muster is sometimes.  Sometimes when my instructor found the words to reach me, it was like a vivid epiphany.  Other times, it steeped in, taking a little while to make a noticeable change but not too long really.  And even other times, I found myself shaking my head because of how long it took for me (literally years) to not just now but truly understand.  And even now, I wonder what lessons from my past will I finally learn in my future.  And that doesn’t even begin to catalog the lessons I need to refresh or relearn entirely.

    What I know for certain is that I did not fail because it didn’t sink in right away.