Appreciating Good Ripples

I just posted an item about a conference organized by my former student, Brian Jarrett, who teaches at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. I am very proud of Brian and other former students, and this conference prompted me to reflect on relationships between teachers and students, among others.

I would like to think that I have made a positive contribution to the lives of former students. Realistically, my contribution is likely to be tiny compared with all the other influences in their lives, and particularly considering their own capabilities, motivations, and resources. Most students probably can’t even remember most of their teachers, let alone particular insights they assimilated from their interactions.

But for at least a few students, particular teachers have made a significant difference. I can think of some such teachers in my life and I assume that you probably can think of some in your life as well.

It is as if teachers throw pebbles in a pond, radiating ripples of influence. Of course, lots of people are tossing pebbles all the time, so it’s hard to separate all the ripples. And some ripples are more helpful than others. Indeed, some can be problematic. But I think of teaching as a helping profession, where we try to be as helpful as we can to our students and generally succeed (albeit to varying degrees).

Teaching is an act of faith. We throw pebbles but we usually can’t see the ripples or know how they affect our students. But we do it in the hope that it will help somehow.

When our students become teachers, they create ripples for their students. Sometimes our former students – now teachers – throw pebbles like they learned from us, though usually with their own spin.

This is also true for students who become lawyers, neutrals, and other dispute resolution professionals. They learn some things about pebble-throwing that they use to help their clients and others they deal with.

In the dispute resolution field, students can use the knowledge and skills we teach in virtually every aspect of their lives, such as parents negotiating with their young children (who often have remarkable skill despite their lack of formal training).

Of course, the influence is not one way, from senior to junior. Often, students eventually surpass their teachers and children surpass their parents in insight and influence. And we send ripples to friends, relatives, colleagues, and even strangers – just as they send ripples to us. When we write articles and books, organize conferences, give trainings and talks, consult with others, etc. we emanate more ripples.

As I feel discouraged by major events in the world and most portrayals in our news and entertainment media, I feel better when I focus on some of the interactions in my own little pond. I appreciate what I have gotten from others and I feel pride about those who I have helped and as I see how they help others in turn. Often I am so focused on my work that I don’t think about this – or express it – as often as I wish I did. I resolve to do better.

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