Teachers Who Plant The Forest

The politicos and the number crunchers haven’t invented the measuring stick calculates the real returns of teaching.  If you have to know, don’t be a teacher.  Instead of those calibrations, seek to expand your ability to extend encouragement, build up rather than tear down, and always be in the business of grace.

During my second year of teaching, I taught across the hall from Jenny, a firecracker speech-and-drama teacher whose energy was rivaled only by her laughter and unruly curls.   She was a fantastic teacher, popular with students, and she directed a spectacular musical every spring and coached an award-winning speech team.

One day I was standing in the hall outside her classroom, and I overheard a conversation between Jenny and a student. I’ll call the student April.  I knew April because she was failing my junior English class. A child of severe poverty and parental dysfunction, April read at a second-grade level and was the victim of a host of behavioral and cognitive disabilities.

“I want to be a lawyer someday,” she said to Jenny, who, in return, was effusive with encouragement, citing several examples when April had exhibited some lawyer-like quality.

I stood in the hall and rolled my eyes.  When April left, I walked into Jenny’s room.

“Don’t you think you’re doing a disservice to her?” I said.

“In what way?” She was truly puzzled.

“Why would you tell a kid who can barely read that she might be a lawyer?  She doesn’t even have a good chance of getting out of high school,” I said.

“We don’t know that.  Who says?”

“Her ACT scores?”

“Well, if she does become a lawyer, I don’t want to be that one old crone English teacher who told her she couldn’t do it. I want to be the one person who thought she could do it, the one person she thanks when she passes her bar exam at the top of her class,” Jenny said.


That was 1994, and I’ve thought about this piece of advice for 20 years now. Teachers can be positive even in the face of vast deficiencies or they can be in the business of harsh reality in the guise of doing students a favor. It’s a pedagogical and philosophical choice.  You can deliver the big bad news to kids about their future, a future you don’t really know, or you can just allow the world to unfold as it does, but always be standing on the side of encouragement, even when you know the outlook is bleak.

And maybe the outlook isn’t as bleak as you think.

I’m not exactly sure what happened to April. Perhaps she didn’t graduate high school. Maybe she dropped out and got a job as a janitor. At a law firm. And maybe one of the attorneys needed some help on the weekends and asked April to file papers, and while filing those papers, she started picking up on the language of the law, and she expressed an interest in getting her GED, then she got an associate’s degree as a paralegal, and then she decided to finish an undergraduate degree, then was accepted to law school, and viola, here we are, a dozen years later, and there’s April walking across the stage to accept her degree of jurisprudence with the image of Jenny firmly in her mind saying, “I think you would make a great lawyer some day.”

Stranger things have happened. The data gatherers haven’t invented the measuring stick that can calculate those returns. As Kentucky poet Wendell Berry writes in his poem, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”:

Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.

Say that your main crop is the forest

that you did not plant,

that you will not live to harvest.

No teacher will truly live to see the harvest of her work. The thing about teaching is that you never know. You never know if what you’re doing will change the world or whether you’re just giving out false hopes.  Because regardless of what the bottom-line guys and the quantifiers say, good teaching can’t be measured, the outcomes can’t be predicted, and the true result isn’t known for decades.

But good teachers plant the seeds anyway, no matter the soil they are handed, and hope that the wonder and curiosity and passion they feed their students will be enough to do the work of a lifetime of water and light.

We invest in the millennium.


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  • CarlDraeger

    I agree with most of what you wrote.

    No teacher will truly live to see the harvest of her work.” is true to a degree. I think that between teaching high school and evening college classes that I’ve served over 3500 students in class and over 500 in coaching athletics. I agree that we’ll never see the fruit from the totality of our work. However, I have had a Gold Star parent tell me at the funeral of her 20 year-old son that I made a difference in his life. I have notes, letters, emails and facebook posts from former students expressing similar sentiments. The impacts which keep me up at night are the apologies I can’t send out to the students I injured in my ignorance. 


    Like most teachers, I pride myself in knowing and educating the whole child. We need to make our students part of the community of our schools. We need to acknowlege the ‘savage inequalities’ and do our part to offset them. These are things that don’t show up in a spreadsheet or on our School Report Card. I believe, however, that student care can and should be quantified. It is possible to quickly identify students that have a healthy relationship with an adult in the school. It is then an easier task to reach out to those not on that list.


    I’ve heard it said that teaching is a hard job. Fortunately, acknowedging that it is hard somehow makes it less so.


    Liz, I am in complete agreement that teachers can choose to bring hope to students. I agree that some outcomes of good teaching don’t manifest for decades. I agree that it is easy for teachers to be ignorant of the power of their words. However, I think that we can identify student care outcomes as well as academic ones. We can establish baseline indicators of student care to provide evidence of success or of areas in need of greater growth. We can measure more of what we say is important.

  • LizPrather

    Measuring Students


    Thank you for the thoughtful response.  And yes, there are numerous indicators that we are doing a good job from thank you notes, letters, and social media shout outs.  I guess the purpose of my post was to honor that moment when extending grace became a more important baseline indicator for me, not for my students, that I was doing the right thing.   And since grace, by definition as unmerited and boundless, is not a measurable quantity, I know that the impact of such actions can’t be measured either.  

    But, as you suggested, there are student care indicators that are accessible and should be measured, so that educators can measure the growth of the whole child, not just academic objectives. 



    • CarlDraeger


      It’s funny how you read things differently at different times. I re-read your original post. I can’t explain why I locked onto such a small portion of your writing and missed the big picture. You’re absolutely right about grace. I can tell from your writing that you take the long view with your students. It doesn’t matter so much where Billy scores on the local assessment. What  matters most is that we do what is Billy’s best interest despite federal, state, and local mandates. “It is never the wrong time to do the right thing.”