20 Signs You've Made a Difference as an Educator

January 31st, 2014 6 Comments Features


Remember that professor you had in college who took you under his wing and made you feel like you had something unique to contribute to the world? You know how valuable his guidance was to you, but does he? Unless you expressed your appreciation, chances are he’s like every other educator—like you, now—who runs on one type of fuel: faith.

There is no shortage of instructional literature on how to make a difference in our students’ lives, but how do we know when we’ve succeeded?

A recent Harvard study found that students are significantly more likely to attend college and earn more money later in life if they had a good teacher in school.

In the new analysis, economist Gary Chamberlain used data from more than 800 schools in a single large urban area in the United States over a twenty-year period. The data set included information on assignments and test scores in grades four through eight, and—for those who attended elementary school in the early part of that range—the students’ later college attendance and their earnings at age 28.

Previous researchers had already determined that teacher quality influenced students’ test scores, and that those scores could predict college attendance, but Chamberlain wanted to examine whether teacher quality could affect longer-term outcomes beyond test scores.

When Chamberlain crunched the numbers, he found that teachers who positively influenced their students’ test scores bumped up those students’ chances of college attendance by less than a quarter of a percent. But if teacher rankings were instead based on the longer-term data, a high-quality teacher sent nearly 1% more students to college.

The difference between the two ranking scenarios, Chamberlain says, is likely due to teacher attributes that are not reflected in standardized test scores; these teachers give the students untested skills that help them thrive.

“This is additional evidence that teachers matter,” Chamberlain says. “And we’re getting closer to figuring out what the ingredients of teacher quality are.”

Still, these findings are rather impersonal and unsurprising. Many of us will never know whether we helped our own students succeed through college or earn a higher salary. We may keep in touch with some of them or learn about their achievements from an outside source, but the majority of students who pass through our doors will never re-enter the picture.

Is the only option, then, to do the best we can and have faith that we changed a few lives? Yes, probably, but we can strengthen our faith by knowing what to look for when it comes to student progress. Below are a few signs to guide you:

  1. Your students are asking questions, not just giving answers. Critical thinking does not mean thinking harder before giving an answer. It means being critical of all possible answers. If your students are asking more questions, and feel comfortable doing so, you can rest assured they will continue the habit outside your class.

  2. You have used your authoritative role for inspiration, not intimidation. Monkey see, monkey do. I once had a writing professor who, as a best-selling novelist, was not too proud to bring his own raw material to class for the students to workshop. This was a great lesson in humility that I’ll never forget.

  3. You have listened as often as you have lectured. Another lesson in authority. Your students have respected your thoughts and ideas by attending your class; the least you can do is respect theirs. Lending an ear is the ultimate form of empowerment.

  4. Your shy students start participating more often without being prompted. Cold-calling may keep students on their toes, but it never creates an atmosphere of collaboration and respect. When the quiet ones feel comfortable enough to participate on their own, you know you’ve made an impact.

  5. A student you’ve encouraged creates something new with her talents. The simple act of creating is so personal, memorable, and gratifying that you can rest assured your student will want to make it a habit.

  6. You’ve been told by a student that, because of something you showed them, they enjoy learning outside of class. Even if it becomes a short-lived interest, your student will realize that learning outside of class doesn’t have to mean doing homework.

  7. You’ve made your students laugh. People like, and therefore listen to, other people who make them laugh. Showing you have a sense of humor about a topic will lubricate the learning path for your students.

  8. You’ve tried new things. Students, especially if they are older, can be critical of change. A new grading system or an unexpected group discussion session can easily lead to resentment instead of renewed interest. But your students will remember it. Whether the change succeeds or not, they will remember it years down the road when all their other classes, so similar to one another, blur together.

  9. You’ve improvised. Respect and inspiration result from going out on a limb, whether the limb breaks or not.

  10. Your student asks you for a letter of reference. Whether you get bombarded by requests for recommendation letters each year or have been asked for one in your entire career, you can’t deny the confidence you’ve boosted and the difference you’ve made.

  11. You have taken a personal interest in your students. Your favorite student still may not get into college or achieve his career goals—it’s frustrating, but it happens—however, the chances that he will are infinitely higher simply because you showed an interest.

  12. You’ve let your passions show through in your lessons. It’s hard to stay animated when you’ve been teaching the same material for twenty-five years, but it’s also hard for your students to stay animated when they don’t know why your subject should excite them. Even if they never become excited by your subject, they have learned that different people have different interests and that it’s okay to share your passion regardless of what other people think.

  13. You’ve made students understand the personal relevance of what they’re learning. Psychologists have proven time and time again that people remember things much better if they are personally relevant. Perhaps the lone advantage in a self-centered culture.

  14. You have cared, and shown that you cared. Researchers at the University of Leicester have proven that students assign the most authority to teachers who care about them. If this is true, then you are demonstrating a wonderful principle: that respect comes from kind behavior.

  15. You have helped a student choose a career. Whether your student was already interested in your subject when she entered your class or only became interested once you started teaching, you know you’ve done a great thing when she asks you privately about careers in your field.  

  16. One of your students becomes an educator. Maybe one of the greatest honors of all. You must know you had some part in the process, whether it was something you did or (yikes) didn’t do.

  17. A parent approaches you with kind words. Certainly too seldom the case, but reassuring when it happens. Sometimes you have no idea your student listened to a word you said until a relative comes forward to thank you.

  18. Your students visit you during office hours. This is not a popularity contest. This is an accessibility contest. If your students feel comfortable approaching you outside of class, whether for help on an assignment or advice on a career, you’ve made a difference already.

  19. You can be a mentor when you need to be. Many students suffer from major obstacles to learning in the form of inner conflict or turmoil at home. While school counselors exist for a reason, you can’t afford to be completely closed off to personal issues. Learning is not independent from feeling, and this is something you can demonstrate to your students.

  20. You practice strength and patience. We’ve all reacted to current situations with emotions left over from the past, whether it’s trouble at home or personal strife. The ultimate lesson, at the end of a rough day, is not blaming anyone but yourself for your reactions. Students are always watching; someday someone will be watching them too.

Despite what administrators might drill into our skulls, educators exist to produce good people, not good test results. The true measure of our success is hard to record on paper but easy to recognize in a student’s behavior. Look for the signs and be open to improvement.


Saga Briggs is Managing Editor of InformED. You can follow her on Twitter@sagamilena or Facebook.

6 Responses

  1. Michael Ghodsi says:


    i am writing a thesis on “the variables of the positive learning environment.”

    could you please let me know which Harvard study showed “that students are significantly more likely to attend college and earn more money later in life if they had a good teacher in school” ?

    thank you very much.

  2. Alex Morris says:

    Numerous teachers and lecturers have had a big impact on me over the years. It’s always special to have someone who really cares about a subject, or is good fun, giving advice. I always remember, a decade ago now, one lecturer of mine proving a point by walking out of the hall, only for the door to get locked on him. He had to walk around the entire building to get back in. Here’s a bloke who’s written numerous books and is celebrated in education, and he took it all with good cheer. Not that I now lock myself out of building to emulate him, but I’ve taken his positive attitude about things.

  3. Hello Saga,

    Very well said! I’m a teacher and a coordinator at an English school in Brazil and we feel so much the same. We’ve been working to make our school a place where students and teachers are welcome to be themselves and share experiences as human beings, rather than only in pedagogical matters. And I’m glad to say that we’ve been receiving beautiful and really inspiring responses from people, which has become our faith-meter to keep doing a good job. These 20 signs you suggest are really what makes the whole difference. They are simple things, that no textbook teaches, but that experience demands every time you set foot inside the classroom. Thank you!

    • Saga Briggs says:

      Thank you for your comment, Vitor! Always nice to reach people on the same wave length. I’m so glad to hear that your program is receiving positive feedback–keep doing the simple things!

      And Alex, thank you as always for your thoughtful comments. You’re right that it’s little moments like yours that stick with students over the years, whether they realize it at the time or not.

  4. This is a powerful article–especially the last paragraph. These principles are important for teachers to remember but would also be empowering for parents to improve their relationships with their children. I am writing a series of articles about how teachers can practice Servant Leadership with their students. The strategies I share fit well with what you highlighted. You can check out these articles at http://www.giftedresources.com Thanks for this thoughtful article Saga. I am going to share it with my LinkedIn and Twitter networks.

Leave a Reply