The Students That Keep Teachers Inspired

Read Charles Rinehimer's Chronicle Of Higher Education piece "The Student and the Spark."

Teachers endure bored, misbehaving, or totally tuned out students, often with little recognition. In a commentary in The Chronicle of Higher Education, professor Charles Rinehimer pays tribute to the completely engaged students who gave him the strength to deal with tough cases.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Ari Shapiro.

Now, teachers are supposed to educate everyone, but some students make it easier than others. In The Chronicle of Higher Education, Professor Charles Rinehimer pays tribute to the ones who keep him going. He writes: That student diligently taking notes, nodding to show me he's with me, laughing at my hilarious jokes, doesn't see what I see. He doesn't see the student texting through class or just staring at me like I'm the jailer holding the class in bondage.

This hour, we want to hear from teachers and professors. Who's the student you'll remember when you reach the end of your career? We often hear about inspiring teachers so this hour, tell us about your most inspiring students. Our number is 1-800-989-8255. You can email us at talk.npr.org. Charlie Rinehimer is a biology professor at Northampton Community College in Bethlehem, Pa. He has taught there for 23 years, and his Chronicle of Higher Ed piece is called "The Student and the Spark." He joins us via Skype from his office there in Bethlehem. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

CHARLES RINEHIMER: Thank you very much. It's an honor to be here. I'm a big fan of the show.

SHAPIRO: Thank you. So I understand you adapted this commentary from an acceptance speech that you gave for a teaching award, and you said that you had always hoped to win just so that you could give this speech. Why was this message so important to you?

RINEHIMER: It was extremely important to me because I didn't figure - I could not figure out a good way to let my students know how important they are in the educational process. Let me just give you an example, kind of an analogy.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, please.

RINEHIMER: If you go to a concert and it's a band you hadn't heard before, at first, you sit in the audience and you listen to the first couple of songs. But then as the band gets going, you get into the music. You begin to cheer. You begin to dance. You begin to sing along. And so it becomes a perpetual motion machine. The band feeds off of the professor - I'm sorry, the audience, the audience feeds off of the band. Well, these days, education is a performance art.

SHAPIRO: So basically, you're saying you're a rock star?

RINEHIMER: Well, yeah, I think maybe we are, in a way.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: I love the opening line of this essay. You said: It's been said that education is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire. Well, I teach high-content biology courses, so I have filled a lot of buckets. And I'm sure my students would be glad to tell you what they think I have filled them with.

RINEHIMER: That's exactly right.

SHAPIRO: Biology does not seem like the most obviously inspiring subject.

RINEHIMER: I think that that's not true. I think biology is incredibly interesting. If you take a look at the world around you, you're looking at biology. And I think if you use the right videos, if you use the right YouTube, if you get students out into the field, I think it's very easy to get them excited about biology.

SHAPIRO: Tell us about one student who you remember most.

RINEHIMER: Well, one that I wrote about in the article was a young student we had here. She was home-schooled, and she came to the college at age 15, and she basically took our department by storm. She was just an outstanding student. And in my Bio 2 class, I gave the students the option that if they turn their term papers in early, I'll make comments, and they can rewrite them for a higher grade. And unfortunately, they hardly ever do that. But this student turned her paper in four weeks early, and it was just outstanding. I made a few comments about further readings she could do, and I gave her a score of 196 out of 200.

The next week, she resubmitted the paper not because she needed the four points; she didn't. Her scores were outstanding. But because she said that after reading my content - after reading my comments, that she could do better.

SHAPIRO: You...

RINEHIMER: And that is just the kind of thing that you teach for.

SHAPIRO: You also talked about students you've had who have come from really difficult backgrounds, in some cases, abusive relationships. Tell us about those.

RINEHIMER: Yes. The very first semester that I taught, 23 years ago, I taught a night section in anatomy and physiology for our nursing students, people trying to get into our nursing department. And I had three students that were from battered relationships. And they would come to class in tears. They'd sometimes come to class with bruises, but they embraced the subject. They worked with me. And by the end of the semester, they got A's, and on the last night, they all gave me a hug as they walked out of my class and into our nursing department, and out of their terrible lives at home. So those are just emotional things that, you know, I'll never forget.

SHAPIRO: Oh, the power of an education. Let's take a call from Diane(ph), who's in Illinois. Hi, Diane. Go ahead.

DIANE: Hello. Well, I was just calling - I'm sitting on the side of the road - I just left Des Moines, where I taught school for 29 years. And I've been going - I've been retired now for a few years, and I've been going back through all my papers. And I found a letter from a student that I had had, and she wrote to me a few years after she left. Her name was Kim(ph). And she said, I'm writing to you to let you know that you really made a difference in my life, and I want you to keep this paper with you so that you will know all your life that you've made a difference in my life. And I've had other...

SHAPIRO: What age did you teach?

DIANE: I taught English; she was a ninth-grader. I had her for two years, in eighth and ninth grade. And then - and I've had others who would run into me, a couple of different people on the street, and say that I had helped them. And it has always made me feel like, as a teacher, it was really a wonderful career and that I know that I did - that it was something that I had helped students with, growing up and to be pretty good people.

SHAPIRO: You know, I imagine in a career that spans decades - as a teacher, there must be some dark nights of the soul where you lose sight of that, and wonder if you really are helping anyone at all or having any difference at all.

DIANE: Yes, you wonder that often.

(LAUGHTER)

DIANE: So these bright spots just make you continue. And I've been working with people at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, who are going in to teaching. And so it's been nice to be able to give them encouragement as they start doing their internships in student teaching, to let them know that those dark nights and dark days aren't always there; that there are many, many bright spots.

SHAPIRO: All right, Diane. Thanks so much for the call. And let's go to another caller. We have Rhiannon(ph) in Orlando, Fla. Hi, Rhiannon. Go ahead.

RHIANNON: Well - hello?

SHAPIRO: Yeah, go ahead.

RHIANNON: Hi. Sorry. What I have to say, one the reasons that we teach, and one of the things that's great, is just hearing these two people that I've, you know, heard so far. I wish my kids thought I was a rock star.

(LAUGHTER)

RHIANNON: And, like, you know, I - sorry. I'm going to cry. It is hard sometimes, you know, to get - I'm only a second-year teacher, so I guess have a different perspective. But in terms of the kids that you'll remember, for me, it's the ones that are - that sort of give the most trouble. I currently teach 10th grade standard level - which is, you know, at this kind of lowest level class that we have at the high school. And actually, I volunteered to take on four periods, and people look at me like I'm crazy.

But I have this one student and he, at the beginning of the year, was - you know, part of a group of boys. They have about six or seven of them. And it's now - school ends in two days, and he is the only one of this group of seven that is still in my class. Every - all the other boys have either been expelled or have dropped out. And so just the fact that he's still there and that, you know, he'll come after class if he gets something, you know, if he made a comment that was out of line, and he'll come back and apologize.

And he has this big, tough-guy exterior. And, you know, his brother is in jail, and he just has a really tough home life. And the fact that he spoke after class to me and that he's still there, he's going to pass - it might be with a D average, but he is going to pass. And I feel good about that, and I'll remember him for that.

SHAPIRO: And has he talked to you about why he stays when so many of his friends have been expelled or dropped out?

RHIANNON: You know, sort of. I think he just - he plays football, and so he does have something to sort of look forward to and keep him going, in that way. I think he, more than the others, realized that there, you know, as much as you can hate sitting through a class and you might not like that teacher and disagree with what they say or think that this won't matter, I think that he recognizes the value of people that maybe know a little something different than what he knows.

SHAPIRO: All right, Rhiannon.

RHIANNON: To have a different say.

SHAPIRO: Thank you for the call ,and for the work that you do. I appreciate it.

RHIANNON: Oh, gosh. Thank you so much.

RINEHIMER: Ari, I think you can already hear the emotion in these people's voices.

SHAPIRO: Absolutely. You know, I was going to ask - Charlie Rinehimer, you have taught for years at Northampton Community College, and I assume that at a community college, your students are not necessarily the most elite, the most privileged, the people who've had access to every luxury in the world. How does that affect your experience as a teacher?

RINEHIMER: I think it enriches it. We see such a broad background: students that are 18 years old; students that are 45, 50, 60 years old. And so we see a lot of students from different ethnic backgrounds, from different educational backgrounds. And although that makes it a challenge, it also makes the classroom a very unique and rewarding experience.

SHAPIRO: All right. I want to take another caller. This is Perry(ph) in Houston, Texas. We're getting so many good stories coming out over the line. Perry, please, go ahead.

TERRY: Hi. It's Terry(ph), actually.

SHAPIRO: Oh, sorry about that, Terry.

TERRY: That's quite all right. I was just saying, I've been teaching for just about 20 years. I taught junior high and high school for just over half of that time, and I've been teaching at the university level. And an inspiring story, for me, is a young woman that I had just graduated this past semester from college. I taught her in college. She became - both of her parents died of drug overdoses and AIDS-related complications before she reached adolescence. She became a teen mom at 15, but still managed to live in Dallas and go to school just outside of Houston.

Her grandmother took care of her son during the week, and she would go home on the weekends to see him. She graduated in four years and with honors, and is now enrolled in a graduate program. And those kind of stories inspire me. She's the type of student who came to get help when and if she needed it, and never complained. But that's what keeps me going.

SHAPIRO: And do you plan to keep in touch with her as she goes on through life?

TERRY: Yes. In fact, we were just talking yesterday. (LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: So she clearly knows what an impact she has had on you?

TERRY: Yes. She has had a huge impact on me and - which is why, although I knew her for one semester, I felt compelled to help her with the application process to getting into graduate school, back where her son is and...

SHAPIRO: Wow.

TERRY: ...how - all types of aid programs that she can qualify for.

RINEHIMER: That's outstanding. That's amazing.

SHAPIRO: We are talking this hour about inspiring students, and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION on NPR News. Charlie Rinehimer, talk about the other side of this equation - the apathetic students. How much do they affect the experience, and how widespread are they?

RINEHIMER: Unfortunately, they're fairly widespread, and that's a shame. And we see that, I think, at the community college to a higher extent because I think some of our students are being forced by their parents to go to college, and so they really don't want to be here. And they really are a - sort of a black hole in a classroom in that they will suck the energy out of it, if you let them. And so...

SHAPIRO: So it's not that they're just an empty space that's not contributing, but they really sort of drain, you're saying.

RINEHIMER: Exactly. Exactly. I mean, that's the one place where the rock star analogy falls apart because the person in the audience who isn't responding to the music doesn't really affect the rock star much. But the instructor, really, personally takes that as a sort of a slight, you know. Why can't I get through to them? Why can't I reach them? And that's an energy drain and - it really is. Oh, absolutely.

SHAPIRO: Mm-hmm. Has that changed much in your 20-some years of teaching?

RINEHIMER: I don't - I know a lot of my colleagues feel that it has, but I'm not sure that it has. I think - I still see, at the community college, sort of an invert - an inversed bell curve, where we have just absolutely exceptional students on one end and then students that are incredibly difficult to reach, on the other. And I don't think that's changed that much.

SHAPIRO: So having an iPhone in their hand doesn't necessarily make them more withdrawn?

RINEHIMER: Well, texting is a big deal.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

RINEHIMER: It really is. I mean, you'll see a lot of students and they put it under the desk and, you know, they basically tune you out. And yeah, that has had an impact, I think.

SHAPIRO: We have another story now from Colleen(ph) in Columbus, Ohio. Hi, Colleen. You're on the air. Go ahead.

COLLEEN: Hi, Ari. Thanks for taking my call.

SHAPIRO: Sure.

COLLEEN: I think that there are probably two students that I would love to mention just because of the qualities they had. One would be a girl named Carly(ph), and the other would be a boy named Patrick(ph). And what both of these students had was that essential desire to learn, and they always took learning to the extra level. For example, they would finish an assignment; and they would say, what I can I do next? And they challenged and inspired me to make them do more, just because I knew they were capable of it.

For example, Patrick was a minority student in a suburban district, who readily could have been on the fringe, or not have really been paid attention to. But he demanded my attention, as a learner. And when he finished an assignment, I said to him, why don't you go ahead and write a screenplay? And at 16 years old, he did.

SHAPIRO: Wow.

COLLEEN: Yeah. And somehow, he...

SHAPIRO: Now, tell us what age, and what subject, you were teaching.

COLLEEN: I was teaching English at a suburban high school in Ohio, to sophomores. So they were 16 years old, at the time. And, you know, I think that - I actually taught high school and now, I'm a professor at a university. But I think the big thing that is still inspirational to us professors - and I think your speaker has addressed this - is that we want learners who are there to truly engage in the learning process; not just, for example, to get grades or to fill the seats. And, you know, sometimes learners can be passive; that the ones that inspire us are the ones who, indeed, make us think about how we can allow them to achieve all that they are capable of achieving while they're with us.

SHAPIRO: Thanks a lot for the call, Colleen.

RINEHIMER: Yeah.

COLLEEN: Thank you.

RINEHIMER: I think that not all of our best students are A students. I've had C students that I consider excellent students because they were so engaged and really into the educational process. So I really don't think it has to do with a letter grade, even. It has to do with enthusiasm.

SHAPIRO: Well, talk to me about this: I understand some of the pushback on your essay has been commenters saying, listen, you should be fighting to engage every student. You shouldn't just - you know - take the ones who come in and hand in their papers early, as inspiration. So how do you respond to that?

RINEHIMER: I think that's absolutely true. But I think the - what they didn't see, in my article, was if you teach to a high level, if you assume that you're trying to reach everyone at a level that they can understand, how can you possibly not bring them along? I mean, I think the idea is to get a class that's engaged, and let that be the ship that's going to pull those people with it. And so the problem is, if you spend too much time on those students that are not engaged, the students that are engaged become bored.

And in today's society, that's one thing I'll state about our learners is they get bored easily. And so you really can't spend too much of your energy and time on the student that really doesn't want to be there, and let the rest of the class - that is trying to work along - fall by the wayside.

SHAPIRO: We have an email here from Mike Reed(ph) in Sheridan, Ore., who writes: I taught a required finance course at Oregon State. I learned to give enough information for the A students to get an A and then concentrated on the C students to get them inspired. My favorite student was on the football team - he says. He was smart, but treated like a football player by professors. He came into my office a quarter after he had earned an A and showed me how he'd applied and been accepted to Stanford for an MBA with a finance emphasis.

He thanked me for showing him how to love numbers and financial statements, and I always used him as motivation when I was in one of those classes teaching folks who just can't wait until the class ends.

Charlie Rinehimer, had you had experience with biology students who did not think they loved biology until they got to the end of your course, and then went on to pursue it?

RINEHIMER: Oh, yes. Yes. Quite a few. In fact, in different aspects of that, I had a student - I also teach a course in our veterinary technology program...

SHAPIRO: Similar experience there, I assume. You know, I'm afraid I have to cut you short. We're reaching the end of the segment. But...

RINEHIMER: Oh.

SHAPIRO: ...I want to thank you for joining us. Charlie Rinehimer, teacher for 23 years at Northampton Community College in Bethlehem, Pa. His piece in the Chronicle of Higher Ed is called "The Student and the Spark," and you can find a link to it at our website.

RINEHIMER: Tomorrow, as speculation swirls over who will be the next head of the FBI, we'll talk about what's next for the organization, so join us for that. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro in Washington.

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