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In my job, I read student work nearly every day. It’s one of the pleasures of the job.

Please don’t read sarcasm into that last line. Reading a new writer’s work is a pleasure. As a reader, I get to see what’s on the mind of students. As a teacher, I get to comment on the writing, and by commenting influence students in the most important of intellectual acts – writing.

Each semester, I ask students to write about an experience they had in school. The assignment gets them thinking about education. Of all stories they could tell about school, what is the one story that captures their experience with their teachers, their peers, and learning?

I get thirty-five responses each term. Each is enlightening.

Many write about the bullies they encountered throughout their school careers. As many write about sleeping through their alarms and missing an important test. And a good number of stories detail grade school crushes.

More often, students write about horrible teachers. The horrible teacher usually takes the form of an autocrat. Sneering, sarcastic, mean, and demeaning.

I remember one story about a teacher who read a poem my student had written in front of the class. The student thought she’d written a good poem. She was proud of her poem, and proud the teacher wanted to read it to the class.

Once the teacher had finished reading the poem, she critiqued it in front of everybody. It was a brutal critique.

The student learned much from the experience. She learned her poem was bad and that she didn’t know a good poem from a bad poem. She also learned not to write poetry anymore.

Another recurring manifestation of the bad teacher is the boorish teacher, the teacher who tells his students they probably won’t go anywhere in life, the one who shows up late to class, teaches nothing, and communicates that school is like he is – a joke.

Taken together, these stories offer teachers a reminder of what not to be. So do the portraits of good teachers I read, like one I read last week.

In this story, a grade-school teacher sees her class struggling with silent reading. The kids tell her they don’t like reading. Reading is boring.

The next day, the teacher announces that there will be no silent reading. Instead, she opens the book and reads to them.

Over the next many days, the students become absorbed in a story they thought was boring.

Days later, once she’s taken the students deep enough into the story – once they’re hooked – the teacher tells her students she doesn’t feel like reading out loud anymore. But that’s okay. The students want to know what happens next, and they all quietly read on their own.

That teacher knew what she was doing. She showed the students that what they wanted – excitement, ideas, a new world – was already in front of them. Her actions showed her students that she recognized them and heard their concerns.

That teacher made such an impression that my student, now in her early 20s, wrote about her for a university assignment. It’s a remarkable tribute the teacher will likely never hear about.

In my survey of student writing about education, I’m reminded that teachers always influence their students, some more than others.

Bad teachers leave a mark. But good teachers can cut through the bad and leave a life-long impression.

Troy Media columnist Robert Price is a communications and professional writing instructor at the University of Toronto.

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