Sherri Y. Geng

Sherri Y. Geng

An analyst at Audax Group, an investment firm in Boston, and a former 2005 Intel Science Talent Search finalist.


Immeasurable impact

Q: How do you define success?

The summer after my sophomore year of college, I taught at Summerbridge Cambridge (SBC), a summer program for students from under-resourced schools in Cambridge, Mass. For two months, I was a full-time teacher with two courses, my own classroom, and a set of eighth-graders -- who were either mischievous, bored, or bleary-eyed, depending on the hour of the day.

The program itself provided us plenty of resources in lesson-planning and classroom management; but day-to-day, I discovered teaching to be a world much different from what we'd all imagined. I battled with the jammed copier more hours than I spent creating the worksheets I was copying, and discovered the hard way that the 6:54 bus actually departed every morning at 6:52.  One day, my lesson of "Poetry Terms Twister" ended when one student smacked another in the head with a plastic baseball bat. 

Contrary to popular belief (or at least to my prior conceptions), I realized that you didn't just enter the classroom and "teach." Instead, you made handouts, fixed the printer, assigned homework, graded journals, attempted to think like a 12-year-old, assessed your students' strengths, identified their weaknesses, fostered trust and respect, tried new games and approaches, failed, tried, and tried again.

That summer in the classroom challenged my basic concept of "success."  Going to bed at 3 a.m. and getting up at 6 a.m., for work that no one else but a group of five, or six, or 14 people would ever see or remember, was patently different from raising money or volunteering in rural clinics, where the "difference" you make can be expressed in numerical scale and scope. You raised X number of dollars, helped Y number of villagers, volunteered Z amount of hours in a hospital or a clinic or a home.  But I could never specify, even when I wanted to, how many hours I spent "succeeding" or "failing" as a teacher.

Instead, it was the smallest changes that I witnessed in the classroom that began to define my vision of success: watching a mentor take weed-pulling and turn it into a teachable moment; or reading a fellow teacher's feedback to her students, both critical and inspiring, and understanding why they began to leave space at the bottom for her wisdom.  Student and teacher both are permanently affected by these moments, however small.  And it was precisely in those moments -- in the victories or struggles that no one else would see but you and your five students -- where the meaning of change came alive to me and took on a significance and power I had never before experienced.

"Everything that ends big, starts small," one of my students had written in her journal one day, reflecting on the work we'd done by the Charles River that afternoon. That summer and thereafter, I came to think of "success" more broadly than simply what we can measure -- small or large, the actions we take will shape in powerfully permanent ways the people around us. I have been out of a classroom for over a year now, and not a day goes by that I don't miss it, or thank it for teaching me that sometimes, the greatest impact you can have goes beyond what you can report or measure or quantify, or even begin to explain.

By Sherri Y. Geng  |  November 3, 2009; 2:11 PM ET  | Category:  Defining success Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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