I’ve gotten a slew of Facebook and LinkedIn requests these last few days, from people I’ve not been in touch with for a while. These come now and then, but what’s unusual right now is how many of them are from people I haven’t been in touch with for a long time.

This past weekend I got a friend request on Facebook from a high school classmate who I haven’t seen since graduation, more than 25 years ago. He’s now a pastor, and from what I hear a pretty good one.

I also reconnected with one of my high school music teachers. This is someone I haven’t spoken to in a couple decades, but she was one of my favorite teachers. It turns out that she was also of the most influential. I’ve not sung in any organized venue since college, but I think singing gave me a valuable familiarity with public performance and an awareness (in a good way) of the craft and artifice of self-presentation.

This is not an impact either of us could have predicted, and it illustrates two things.

The first is that education is rarely wasted… but its doesn’t always pay off where you expect. When my children were babies and waking up in the middle of the night, I was getting very little sustained sleep, and often thought to myself, this is like studying for my orals. I didn’t read all that Joseph Ben-David, Margaret Rossiter and Andy Pickering in order to be more effective at baby-wrangling; but it turns out that the experience of having to plow through vast amounts of stuff, and not having enough hours to both read and sleep, paid off in unexpected ways. Nor did I study STS to become a futurist; but the value of STS as a conceptual toolkit and way of thinking is pretty self-evident to my colleagues.

The second is that if it’s hard for us to predict how what we learn will pay off, it’s almost impossible for our teachers to know. For me, one of the hardest things about teaching was the sense that I didn’t know– indeed, couldn’t know– what kind of impact I was having on my students, or would have on them. It might be that the enthusiastic ones would never find a use for anything I taught them, or that the smart but slightly jaded one would have a career-defining moment that turned on something she learned in class. All of that was unknowable to me, and I would have to take on faith that, after all was said and done, my impact would be more positive than negative (or maybe neutral was the worst you could reasonably expect– a history teacher is going to have a hard time ruining anyone’s life).

Of course, there are a few students you hear about, and if you’re old enough you might merit some kind of formal recognition, which is an occasion for people to come and say nice things about you. But those kinds of events are pretty scripted, and come pretty late in one’s professional life.

I wonder, though, if in the future teachers will find it a little easier to know how their former students are doing, and what kind of effect they might have had on them. My wife, who teaches eighth graders, is connected to some of her former students through Facebook; and while they may not talk regularly, those weak ties are easier to maintain than my connections to my teachers, and it’s probably a little harder for them to decay to the point of being useless. (After a couple moves, I found that not only had I shed myself of things I wanted to get rid of, I’d also inadvertently thrown out things like address books, old letters, and the like. So much for going home again.) I suspect that in the future these links may make it easier for teachers to have a sense of how they’ve affected students. Which would be nice for everyone.

[To the tune of Perpetual Groove, “March of Gibbles Army,” from the album “Live at The Music Farm, 31 December 2006”.]

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