The most influential learning experience I’ve had recently involves the following quote:

A teacher affects eternity; she may never knows where her influence stops.

I have read this quote countless times on bumper stickers, mugs, and paper weights, and have brushed it aside for it’s maudlin taste—until now. I’ve learned it’s true.

I’ve been a volunteer at a local literacy center for a few months now. After reading about the center in a local newspaper and doing a bit of research, I signed up to volunteer. The center teaches English-speaking adults how to read, write, and do basic math, and I work with one of these amazing learners. These adults are like you and me: they have jobs and families; they eat out and go to movies; they have goals and dreams. But, for various reasons, most did not learn to read past an elementary grade level. They’ve compensated in various ways like claiming to forget their glasses or passing paperwork on to someone else. Then something happens that makes them want to change their lives. They want to read a menu and order what they want instead of “what he’s having.” They want to read Goodnight, Moon to their grandchild. They want a college degree. Through various individuals or organizations, they find this center.

According to the center’s policy, if you want to learn, you have to be the one to call. One reason I admire the adults here is because they chose to be there; they made the decision to learn. It takes courage—and humbleness—to place a call and tell a stranger on the other end, “Hello, I’m 20, 40, 60 years old and I’d like to learn how to read and heard you can help.”

Teaching at the center is different than teaching a classroom of teenagers, and presents its own challenges and learning experiences. I’ve learned that my actions as a teacher really do have eternal consequences for anyone I teach, and sometimes those consequences—and their lessons—are unexpected. I also understand better what type of teacher I am and what I value as an educator.

During my two-day volunteer training at the center, the director explained that many learners there had bad experiences with school and/or teachers. That would be understandable. We expect our teachers to do their job—to teach and help children succeed. As one former teacher has said, our school system has 12 years to teach our children how to read, and they should be able to do so. Think about it: twelve years, nine months each year, for about eight hours a day in one building full of teachers. If the student shows up, he should be assured of being educated in basic reading, writing, and math skills, regardless of other influencing factors. It’s the basic purpose of school. If schools don’t fulfill their purpose, we’re disappointed and angry. Sometimes we become indifferent and miscreant.

We volunteers got to meet a couple of the learners at the center. When we asked them how they got through school without learning how to read, one learner’s explanation enlightened my own teaching experience and clarified my definition of a teacher.

This learner told us that he made it through school without learning to read because all of his teachers had labelled him as a trouble maker (because when you don’t understand the lesson, you find other ways to occupy your time), then, like they did with all trouble makers, they shoved him in the back of the class and ignored him.

A teacher affects eternity.

As the learner spoke, two feelings came to me simultaneously. First, I got nervous; he had a very poor opinion of teachers and I hoped he wouldn’t find out that I, sitting next to him, was of those professionals he hated. Then I wanted to jump up and shout in mutual understanding, anger, and shock, because this man had just described some of my colleagues who had seen my own “trouble makers” at school and told me, word for word—and I am not making this up—“Just put them in the back of the class and ignore them. Teach to everyone else.” I realized this man had been one of those students. Suddenly, I was face to face with the true repercussions of those teachers’ actions. I also realized how important my decision was when I, without hesitation, refused to follow this advice.

I actually thought those teachers were joking at first, because their advice made no sense. First of all, it wasn’t going to help me—the problems wouldn’t be solved, they would just move with the kids to the back of the class. Second, it wasn’t going to help any of my students—they wouldn’t get the education or the help they needed and expected from me. Also, I could only imagine what sort of evaluations I’d get if I followed this advice. Ignoring a problem was not part of my job as a teacher. I simply thought about each of my students and realized I couldn’t and didn’t want to ignore them. They didn’t deserve that. I was also advised to kick the problem students out and send them to the office repeatedly. I did this for a time, but it didn’t get the desired results, nor were the students getting the necessary help. So instead, I took some time to work with as many as I could individually.

Some educators trivialized my actions, but I ignored their mockery. Other teachers told me that, by not ignoring these “problem” students, I was “just making more work for myself.” I laughed outright and thought, “More work? I don’t know what you do, but figuring out how to help a student learn isn’t more work. It’s called teaching.” I wasn’t just going to ignore part of the class and hope the problems would go away. I also wasn’t going to teach just those students who seemed to care. That was not my job. It was my job to determine what my all my students knew, what they needed to know for my class, and then help them progress. If something wasn’t working, then I would find out why and make necessary changes. Not everyone wanted to be helped, and I didn’t solve everyone’s problems, but I made an effort and we made progress.

I had no idea that, years later, I would realize how potentially eternal and influential my actions may have been for some of my students. They each had varying degrees of issues to work with, and sometimes it was simply showing them a level of trust and respect. I hate to think what would have happened to them if I had left them alone.

Listening to this learner at the literacy center brought back memories of specific students. One of my students had looked at me one day and suddenly exclaimed, “At least you help me! None of the others will help me.” I was shocked. A call for help comes in many different ways, and apparently not all teachers heed that call. All my students had to do was ask—or yell—for help and they’d get it. I also noticed and responded to behavior, since a specific call for help wasn’t always vocalized. Either way, I’d help them because they needed it. I thought any teacher would do the same. I expected any teacher to do the same. We want our students to learn, after all. I realized my students were so thankful for my help because I actually heard and took the time.

Of course, the students had to do their part, too. But once they realized that I wasn’t going to ignore them, they were willing to make more of an effort. Again, I didn’t solve every problem, and it was not my fault if they failed, but I made an effort, which made a difference. I took my job as a teacher seriously—I was affecting eternity. I had to show my students that I recognized my responsibility and that they mattered.

What if some of the adults at the literacy center had gotten the type of acknowledgement, challenge, and help they had needed? What if one of their teachers, instead of ignoring their need or deciding it was too much effort, had recognized their call for help? Would it have made a difference? I don’t know. But something positive could have happened, because I saw it happen with my students.

Expert educators believe that in an ideal educational system, all students in a class would be on the same learning level so that the teacher doesn’t have to spend time helping small groups of students that are behind, leaving the rest of the class on their own. But we don’t have this ideal system. We are working with human beings who have all kinds of factors influencing their lives and learning. We need to take the time to show our students that we do care. That is our job, isn’t it? We teach because we care about them and what they know.

Every teacher affects eternity. Our students look to us to determine whether we are a teacher who is going to bother with them, one who is going to care. As a teacher and tutor, I value my students as well as my own knowledge. I care about their attitude as well as what and how they are learning under my instruction. I refuse to ignore them and their needs. I will continue to be the type of teacher who takes the time for my students. Whether progressing with encouragement or standing strong against opposition, I strive to be an influence for good.