Sometimes, Knowing is Enough
It’s that time of year when we all share things that make us thankful. As with most people, I have many blessings about which I can reflect this year. One of them is that I’ve had the opportunity to impact so many young lives throughout my career. Because of social media, many of my former students even let me know what they’re doing with their lives.
I started my career at West Middle School in Muskogee (which isn’t even a school anymore) in 1993. These were my eighth grade students, and my sixth grade academic team.
I was only there a year, but I had a great principal and great colleagues on our eighth grade team. I’ve occasionally seen names of students from this group on Facebook, but there are only a couple who I really know anything about. I would say this group probably shaped who I became more than I shaped them.
My years at Mustang High School, however, have given me many friends – both from among the colleagues I had, and the students I taught. Since I left the classroom in 2002, all the students I ever taught are in their 30s now. They have families and careers. Some are even teachers. Some have found happiness and success. Some have found hard times. I told them all that when they graduate from high school, they need to get used to calling me Rick, rather than Mr. Cobb, since it was my intent that they become my peer as adults.
Of all the groups I taught, I probably have the fondest memories of the students I had the good fortune to keep for two years. At the end of the 98-99 school year, I had been teaching freshman for four years. I had two sections of regular English and three sections of honors English. Because one of our teachers was moving into an assistant principal position, I had the opportunity to move up. On the first day of school, rather than covering the syllabus and the student handbook, I opened with, “so, when we left off in May…” and then we started learning.
This was before I had ever read anything about building relationships with students and how much that impacts their learning. It was just obvious to me. When I was coaching volleyball, and I had some of my players in class, it was easy to connect with them. The better you know your students, the better you can teach them. It’s not rocket surgery.
This is also the group of students I taught that has connected with me as adults in the greatest numbers. The two pictures below show my honors classes from that year. Of the students pictured, I’m friends with 25 of them on Facebook. I’ve actually seen most of them since they finished high school, which is even more notable since I left Mustang the year they graduated.
Some would come back to me when they were juniors and seniors and ask for advice with their AP papers. Even after I moved to Medford as a principal, I had students who reached out to me.
The last year I was in the classroom, I had a student named CM. He was funny and smarter than he knew. What he probably didn’t realize was that when we were discussing some story or a writing topic, I would give him a little latitude to circle around to the point. He didn’t always take the most direct line from the question to the answer. He made it there, but indirectly. And he’d stick the landing. It was worth the processing time to get to the result.
It was with CM’s class that I stopped in the middle of a class discussion one day in April and just stared blankly at my students. I had already accepted the Medford job and was in the process of selling a house and changing everything. I just had this clear moment of what I was leaving behind. After a few silent, awkward moments, one of the students asked me if I was ok. I said something along the lines of how I just had realized everything I was giving up. My job was to discuss books I love with some of the most interesting people in the world. It was like Oprah, but without her paycheck.
I still think that’s a pretty cool job.
Eight months later, as I was in my office getting ready for a much needed break, I got a phone call from Mustang. It was CM and two other students from that class. They just wanted to tell me Merry Christmas and ask me how I liked being a principal. We probably talked for five minutes or so, and that was that.
Until this August, I hadn’t heard from CM for nearly 13 years. Out of nowhere, I received this Facebook message:
Hey Mr. Cobb, this is CM… I had you for AP English II at Mustang.., I am doing my student teaching at Mustang this semester and I have sophomores in English II LOL… My mom said I needed to friend you on Facebook and I thought it was a good idea so I sent you a request and here is a message attached. Anyway, I just thought I would say hello and let you know what I was doing… Just FYI I wanted to let you know you are a big reason why I decided to go into teaching. You were a great teacher, awesome person, and a great influence so thank you for everything!
I love it when my former students become teachers. I quickly tried to hire him because, well, you know, there’s a teacher shortage. Mostly, I just love hearing stories about how the people I taught turned out. I know their parents influenced more than I did. I know they had other teachers. But when one of them takes the time to tell me that something I did shaped their life in a positive way, I feel like I’m watching a SportsCenter highlight of myself.
After leaving the classroom, I spent two years as a principal, four years as a state employee, and then seven in the central office before becoming a superintendent. For the last 11 years, I haven’t had the direct day-to-day contact with kids. I have made friends at each of those places. I have provided training for teachers all over the state and developed a professional network that I treasure. I know that my work has made a difference. And sometimes, knowing is enough.
But I have to take it on faith. I don’t see the students and watch them from May to August. Sure, principals can give me their data points, but I think we all know how I feel about data points. They’re not people.
I knew once I left the classroom, I would never have that kind of relationship with students again. If anything, that’s probably what motivates me to be in schools as much as I can be right now. I love opportunities to work with kids, but more than that, I get to see teachers building those relationships with students, and with families. I take selfies with classes because it reminds me why we do what we do.
Sometimes, though, I get messages that my nine years in the classroom mattered to someone else besides me. And for that, I’m thankful.