CYC-Online 51 APRIL 2003
ListenListen to this

adults and youth

Do I make a difference?

Mary Beth Hewitt

Adults who work with challenging youth sometimes feel that they have little impact in the face of the many environmental risks these young people face. However, the power of a caring adult to influence lives can sometimes be greater than that of family or peers, as shown by these student reports about adults whose specific actions had lasting positive (or negative) effects on them.

"What can I do? I only have them for a few hours each day. Their family or friends have more influence on them than I do. Sometimes I feel like I’m fighting a losing battle. How can I make a difference if their environment doesn’t change?"

This is a pretty common refrain I hear at workshops. I remember feeling the same way at certain points in my career as a teacher, especially when I would be talking with a student about a different way he or she could have handled a problem and the student would reply, “But my Dad told me to hit him," or “What’s the big deal? All my friends smoke." I’d think, “Why am I investing so much time in trying to influence this student’s life in one direction when it seems as though everyone else is exerting influence in the opposite direction?" At those times, I felt powerless, inadequate, and insignificant.

I can’t remember when I came to the realization that many of my teachers had had very dramatic and long-lasting effects on my life, sometimes influencing me more than my parents or friends. I think it might have been when I first read Haim Ginott’s (1976) book Teacher and Child. The opening sentence in the preface of the book was “Teachers are expected to reach unattainable goals with inadequate tools." I agreed with that! Ginott went on to say, “The miracle is that at times they accomplish this impossible task" (Ginnott, 1976, p. 15). I came to believe that if some of my teachers could have had so strong a positive or negative influence on me, then perhaps I could have a similar effect on my students.

Ginott’s philosophy, written when Ginott was a young teacher, is often posted in classrooms. For those of you who are unfamiliar with it, here it is:

I have come to a frightening conclusion.

I am the decisive element that creates the climate.

It is my personal approach that creates the climate.

It is my daily mood that makes the weather.

As a teacher, I possess tremendous power to make a child's life miserable or joyous.

I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration.

I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal.

In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated, and a child humanized or de-humanized.

Perhaps the hardest lesson I’ve ever had to teach my students I’ve also had to teach myself. It’s difficult to keep doing what you know and believe is right when the rest of the world seems to be doing the opposite. It’s hard to keep doing your job when it appears that others are not doing their part. It is hard to believe that anything you do matters when you appear to be going against the flow.

Affecting Lives – For Better or Worse
What things do we do that make a lasting impression on the students in our care? I teach a course in classroom management at Nazareth College. At the beginning of each semester, I ask my graduate students to think about a teacher who had the most positive impact and a teacher who had the most negative impact on their lives. I hope the following items might help you reflect on the power you truly do have to positively or negatively influence your students.

Teachers who made a negative impact

Teachers who made a positive impact

When students feel powerless to affect their world, they assume the stance of a victim and say things such as, “Why should I bother, no one else is doing their job?" and “It won’t make a difference." I tell them that one way to ensure that others won’t do their job is if they don’t do theirs first. One way to ensure that you have no power in your own life is by not even trying. Teachers and adults in the helping professions might well take that advice for themselves. One way that I can ensure that I will have no effect on a child's life is to adopt a “why bother" stance. If I expect my students to keep trying when it’s hard, I have to model that type of behavior for them. Much of the research on the factors affecting self-esteem and youth success points to an attachment to at least one significant adult. I believe that as educators, we have the potential to be those adults of significance.


Ginott, H. (H76). Teacher and child. New York: Avon.

This feature: Hewitt, M.B. (1999). Do I make a difference. Reclaiming Children and Youth. Vol. 8 No. 2. pp 80-82

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