Saturday, April 16, 2011

What Kind of Difference Will You Make?

It is no secret that I've been preaching far and wide about the difference that teachers make. I've lived it, as a first grader, in a dark basement classroom, and I've read it in letters from past students who want to thank me for impacting them in a positive way. I've written articles about the importance of teacher/student relationships, and I've written a book about the difference my own first grade teacher made almost fifty years ago.

A theme that runs through my speeches and articles, as well as my book, is that the nurturing, caring teacher is the one who makes the biggest impact on students. The adult who displays an unconditional regard for students and their learning is "the one" who will be remembered as making a difference in the life of a child. And I'll stick to those words. But I had a conversation with someone a few days ago who had an interesting twist to the story of teachers making a difference.

She told me that as she thought back over her life, she knew the teacher who was the reason behind her eventually becoming successful - an educator, now working on her doctorate - as opposed to becoming a juvenile deliquent taking a destructive path to nowhere. That teacher was a high school math teacher, and my friend was not a good student, particularly in math. Growing up in poverty, she didn't have the tools she needed to be successful in school, and she was not confident about her abilities in math. I waited for her to tell me how this teacher encouraged her, hovered over her desk and pointed to numbers on her paper, giving her a quick hug before moving on to the next student.

That's not what came next. She told me instead that this teacher would often humiliate her in front of the class, would admonish her for incorrect answers, and would mistreat her in unthinkable ways. She said it was during that year that she decided to focus her energy on doing whatever was necessary to be successful in school. She woke up every morning determined to be a stellar student, a student who wouldn't give that teacher the opportunity to humiliate her in front of her peers.

"She pushed me to be great," she said.

Years later, she gave that teacher a call to tell her that she had, literally, changed her life. The teacher did remember her but made no mention of her drive and determination. Instead, she learned that my friend's current job isn't inside a classroom; it includes mentoring and training other teachers. The math teacher displayed some old habits when she ridiculed my friend: "Well, you're not even a teacher." Some things never change.

All teachers have the opportunity to make a difference in the life of a child. I've said before that many times we don't even know the impact we've made. Once I was walking in a local shopping mall when I was approached by a lady who identified herself as the mother of a former student. As she went on and on about my class, how much I meant to her son, and so on, I was horrified that I didn't remember him. His name didn't even sound familiar. But I listened and nodded, hoping she'd say something that would spark a memory.

Finally, she said, "You don't know this...but you're the reason my son made it through seventh grade. He was struggling that year, having a hard time with peers, was so depressed I thought he was suicidal at times, but he enjoyed your class and wanted to come to school because of it." My mouth fell open and my brain was spinning. How could I have had that type of impact on a kid and not even know it?

The point is...we do make a difference. We have the honor and the responsibility of making a difference with every child we teach, every day they sit in our classrooms. Luckily, my friend had an inner drive that pushed her to make something positive out of a negative experience. And luckily, I was able to impact a student in a very important way, even though I was unaware of it and had no memory of the student years later.

How will the difference you make as a teacher be remembered? Will the story your students tell about you be positive or negative? Think about that as you walk through those classroom doors every day. What an amazing opportunity...


Sioux Roslawski said...

I ran into a former student on Friday afternoon at the Dollar Store. He was my student two years ago, and is now in a different district.

I asked him what his favorite subject was. He said, "Social Studies," and I asked why. He cocked his head to the side a bit and hesitated, and then said, "Because of you..."

Teachers DO make a difference. We usually don't hear what our impact is, but hopefully it's a positive one and if we're really lucky, someday, we run into a student or a student reaches out to us, and we hear how we impacted their life...

Nancy Flanagan said...

I became friends with the CA TOY in 1993. When he was named TOY, he decided to look up an English teacher who believed in him, encouraged him to write, even though he was spending most of his time in the parking lot getting high. Her telling him that he was a good writer saw him through a stint in VietNam and a number of wasted years.

He found her in a senior living home, visited her, told her how much she meant to him. And she didn't remember him. He shared several stories...she was sharp as a tack, polite, and happy that he succeeded. But had no memories of him, at all.

For some reason, I really like that story (and your story). All I can say is that it's a good thing Mrs. Warnecke has such a great memory.

On another note, thanks for your updates and photos. The destruction is just incredible. Prayers...

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