Twelve Things I’ve Learned about My Students and My Teaching after a Bunch of Decades

By Gary D. Schmidt

I’m approaching the transition from a life of full-time university teaching to a life of full-time writing, and while I thought that leaving the formal classroom might mean real grief—and there is some of that—I’m feeling a stronger sense of gratitude for years of a good life lived in a profession that has an ancient history and that dwells with youth. 

It has been lovely to say to the guy on the plane who is sitting next to me and who asks if I am a teacher because I seem to be grading papers, “I am indeed.” It has been exciting to begin anew every fall, and to live in the rhythms of academic life. To see students catch fire at an idea or a discipline, or to watch them cross the stage with a diploma in hand, or to see them in later years as mature human beings is to affirm Possibility and to believe in Hope.

Students grow up, and they can become their best selves, and isn’t it remarkable, isn’t it a privilege, that we can have some small part in that?

So it is natural, and maybe even inevitable, I suppose, to reflect on teaching and students from the vantage point of a long career in the university classroom. Doing this feels sort of celebratory.

So quiet down, please. Let’s begin.

  • Though as teachers we might wish that our students remembered our brilliant lectures, innovative pedagogical techniques, and dazzling discussion procedures, in fact, we are often remembered more powerfully for the unplanned moment of encouragement, gesture of affirmation, or informal out-of-class connection. We may not even remember those moments or gestures, but our students do and will sometimes refer back to them when they meet us in later years. Unplanned as they are, these moments come only out of our deepest selves, and out of the cultivation of our sense of how blessed we are to be working as teachers with these students.

  • Technology in the classroom is not always our friend. In fact, often it gets in the way—and not just when the damn thing doesn’t work. Bells and whistles are no match for honest and vigorous discussion. They just aren’t.

  • Here’s a lesson I had to learn: No matter how experienced I became, no matter how many classes I taught, I needed to keep reading in my discipline. Always.

  • As I’ve grown older as a teacher, I have found myself less and less sure of things, less and less willing to establish firm boundaries and irrevocable truths, less and less willing to proclaim, “Thus sayeth the Teacher.” I think, I hope, that this is part of the wisdom that comes with age. But our students tend to like all sorts of firm boundaries, from “Poetry is dumb” to “This author is irrelevant” to “We should not have to read this text because . . .” to “I’m never going to use this.” These boundaries feel safe and unassailable and obvious to our students. Part of our job is to show them what we are ourselves learning: safe and unassailable boundaries are often merely prejudices and narrowness.

  • Here’s a shocker: Sometimes our students haven’t finished reading the assignment before class. Sometimes they haven’t even started. Sometimes they did finish, but they were so tired and inattentive that they couldn’t remember what happened at the top of the page when they got to the bottom. Whether we apply grace or the thunder of God to these situations, it is probably wise to remember that when we were students, we sometimes didn’t finish either. (I’m so sorry, Dr. Stine, but I couldn’t stand Matthew Arnold and never finished reading his blather.) Our students lead complicated lives, and mercy on our part is not always weakness. In fact, it might be that on that day, mercy is the lesson we’re meant to teach.

  • Here’s another lesson I had to learn: No matter how experienced I became, no matter how many classes I taught, I needed to spend summers completely revising my class teaching plans. 
  • There are forces, good and ill, that are constantly reminding students that their classes are only a certain percentage of what is calling for their attention in school. These forces tend to get stronger as the years go by, as age brings complexity. Students will sometimes miss the discussion on Flannery O’Connor because they have a law school to visit, or an internship to interview for, or the volleyball tournament, or meeting a partner’s parents, or taking another shift so they can pay for the classes they’re taking, or because they had some life crisis that came upon them suddenly and imperiously. We remind them that in these years, their primary role is to be a student; they remind us that “primary” does not mean “only.”

  • Even though our discipline may be the principal lens through which we teach, our job is not to teach students that life can be exclusively one thing—that would be a lie. It is to show them, though, that this stuff we’re teaching, on this day, in this classroom, is going to nurture them in other areas for all of their lives. After all, they’re going to meet corrupt sailors, and scheming merchants, and jolly innkeepers, and loving pastors, and needy characters crying out for attention, and schemers out to cheat them. They may as well first encounter them in Chaucer to understand and embrace the complexity of our humanity. They’re going to look for ways to discover their own identities. They may as well see a protagonist do this in Jane Eyre. They’re going to find that historical injustices do affect them in powerful ways. They can see this in Kindred. They’re going to search for spiritual meaning. They can see this in American Born Chinese. What we are teaching, matters.

  • Here’s another lesson I had to learn: No matter how experienced I became, no matter how many classes I taught, I needed to discover new concepts in my discipline that excited and fascinated me. These may, or may not, have found their way into my classes, but they nourished the love of a discipline that I could share with my students.

  • Where we sit in a room matters.  In choosing seats, students are making announcements about how they see themselves in relationship to this class, to the teacher, and to the rest of the students. These are not always healthy choices, though they may be heartfelt choices. Teachers can affirm and praise the heartfelt quality, but they also need to help students find ways toward health. Where we sit is not a small thing, and it’s not kindergarten stuff to direct students to better spaces.

  • For many of our students, time has telescoped. For me, World War Two was already ancient history. For them, World War Two comes right after the fall of Rome. For them, Vietnam is—along with the beginning of the Star Wars sagas and “We are the World” and September 11 and the loss of the Challenger and so much else that seems to me to be so close—far away and long ago. I need to remember that what is memory to me is often an allusion they need to google up.

  • There will be days when I’m tired, when my students are tired, when none of us are particularly good in the classroom. Nothing this side of mortality will stop that. On those days, instead of whining, let me rejoice in the meaning of the profession I have chosen. It is not a profession meant to make me rich and famous. I will leave that silliness to the celebrities. Teachers have chosen a profession that is, at its heart, meant to serve, and it is in serving that we become most fully human. 

It is indeed.


About the Author

Gary D. Schmidt is the bestselling author of the National Book Award finalist Okay for Now; the Newbery Honor and Printz Honor Book Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy; and the Newbery Honor Book The Wednesday Wars. The Labors of Hercules Beal, which School Library Journal calls “sharp and essential purchase,” is available now.

Praise for The Labors of Hercules Beal

"Sharp and funny . . . this essential purchase will spark interest in classical mythology and encourage readers to reach out to ­others in times of stress."
  — School Library Journal (starred review)
"Schmidt employs his signature narrative style, balancing scenes of humor and affecting gravity through Hercules’s droll narration. A moving hero’s journey."
  — Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"This memorable novel offers emotional honesty, wit, and a hard-won, heartening perspective."
  — Booklist (starred review)
"Schmidt’s narrative keeps readers engaged with action [and] humor."
  — Horn Book (starred review)

About the Book

From award-winning author Gary D. Schmidt, a warm and witty novel in the tradition of The Wednesday Wars, in which a seventh grader has to figure out how to fulfill an assignment to perform the Twelve Labors of Hercules in real life—and makes discoveries about friendship, community, and himself along the way.

Herc Beal knows who he's named after—a mythical hero—but he's no superhero. He's the smallest kid in his class. So when his homeroom teacher at his new middle school gives him the assignment of duplicating the mythical Hercules's amazing feats in real life, he's skeptical. After all, there are no Nemean Lions on Cape Cod—and not a single Hydra in sight.

Missing his parents terribly and wishing his older brother wasn't working all the time, Herc figures out how to take his first steps along the road that the great Hercules himself once walked. Soon, new friends, human and animal, are helping him. And though his mythical role model performed his twelve labors by himself, Herc begins to see that he may not have to go it alone.