John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

What Do You Want to Be Remembered For?

This past Saturday night my wife, Betsy Barefoot, and I had a lovely experience: a former graduate student of ours drove about 125 miles one way to bring her husband and nine year old daughter to have dinner and a good visit with us. Betsy and I had taught this former student about 18-19 years ago and since then she has completed a doctorate and is having a fine career serving higher education. She was/is truly one of my very best all-time career students.

Certainly one of the greatest compliments any professor, or any other type of higher educator, can receive is to have a former student make an effort to come back for a visit.

But a question that occurs to me to reflect on is what could/should educators be doing with students NOW that might want to move those students to want to make such an effort in the future?

I can certainly attest to the fact that having such visits, or even correspondence, updates, check-ins, from former students has been one of the most gratifying outcomes of my career choice.

Like the majority of faculty, but unlike many administrators, I spent my entire higher ed institutional career in one institution—and I am very glad I did. And that was in a relatively small state (South Carolina) where it seemed that most of my former students never left. They just love the place, in spite of its appallingly bad political leadership. And so I found over my three plus decades in South Carolina that I was constantly running into my former students. And when I did, frequently they gave me feedback. But it was rarely about the subject matter that I taught them. It might have been about something they remembered that happened in class. Or something I made them do, like a memorable thought provoking assignment, or making them read something they never would have read otherwise (e.g. like The New York Times). But more often than not, the feedback was about me, and something I had done for or with them. And it wasn’t always much: the fact that I had “talked” with them; shown an interest in them; always remembered their name; pushed them; went on a field trip with them; helped them get a job. But it all can reduced to what I call: “the gift of self.”

After all, college isn’t really so much about learning “facts” as it is about learning how to learn, being inspired by adult professionals, being exposed to and encouraged by mentors, making that transition into the kind of adulthood that is more likely to come about for college graduates.

This has led me to conclude that you might as well be intentional about this: what is it about you that you want to give your students? For what would you want to be remembered 15-20-30-40 years later? Professors are very influential people during a period of very formative development for other individuals. We are going to be remembered. So we might as well be remembered for what we might want to be remembered for. It’s all about being intentional in our behaviors and practices—but still natural and spontaneous.

So what do you want to be remembered for? What will you be remembered for?

-John N. Gardner

2 Comments

  1. KathyJuly 20, 2010 at 10:09 amReply

    I would like my students to remember that learning is all about "choices" and that as they travel through life, I want students to remember that in my health classes they learned content, communication of respectful opinion, the essence of fun and cooperation, and most importantly that they have potential and are special. I hope that I will be remembered for leading students to find passion about living a healthy lifestyle and that choices throughout life will matter.

  2. John N. GardnerJuly 20, 2010 at 3:52 pmReply

    I am sure that your students will come back in the future to visit you and to tell you they did indeed get what you most wanted to teach them. It is all about being intentional about the gift of self.

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