When you are a kid who grows up in any kind of dysfunctional family, your teachers become your role models. I can name every teacher I’ve ever had and to this day remember with clear detail my favorite elementary school teacher, Mrs. Zebraski, reading From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler to us in fifth grade. I’m lucky enough to be friends on Facebook with my favorite high school teacher, who influenced my life and journalism career in many ways, not the least of which in his scrawled yearbook note: “Negative publicity is the best kind.”
Whenever news comes from my hometown of one of my former teachers retiring, I try to send a note thanking them for what they did. To me, there is no greater gift you can give a child than a love of learning and although we can ignite that fire as parents, it’s the teachers who keep it burning for many, many years. Today, as a mother, I can’t stand to hear other mothers complain about a teacher and feel guilty if I catch myself doing it. Of course we/our kids aren’t going to love every single teacher they have. All the more reason we should take time to thank the good teachers.
I found out recently that my high school history teacher, Mr. Beach, had died. I instantly remembered how funny and brilliant he was, how much I loved his class, how fun he made it to learn history. In reading his obituary, I learned that he had been a veteran of the Korean War and Vietnam, won Two Purple Hearts and other military honors, and was part of the 716th Military Police Battalion which, in 1962, helped escort a young African-American student named James Meredith through the doors of the newly desegregated University of Mississippi. How lucky I was to have been taught history by him.
Successful teaching is not just about state proficiency scores or report card grades. It’s about the little things teachers say that make our child’s day; that they’ll remember, or a special award, like the one I got from Sister Nancy in 8th grade for writing, that we will keep forever. The teachers that make our children laugh, take them for a nature walk, play the guitar or a fun game… these are the ones that influence our children throughout their lives.
I read a letter written recently by one of the mothers who lost a child in the Sandy Hook tragedy. Her daughter died in the school, and her son survived. Her son’s teacher went back into the building to protect her class even as the shots were still being fired. As this current school year started, she addressed the letter to teachers:
“Have faith that your hard work is having a profound impact on your students. Of the 15,000 personal letters I received after the shooting, only one stays at my bedside. It’s from my high school English teacher, Robert Buckley…..But you can’t be courageous or step out on faith without a deep love for what you do. Parents are sending their precious children to you this fall. Some will come fully prepared, and others not. They will come fed and with empty bellies. They will come from intact homes and fractured ones. Love them all….Your courage will support students who are left out and overlooked, like the isolated young man who killed my daughter. At some point he was a young, impressionable student, often sitting all alone at school. You will have kids facing long odds for whom your smile, your encouraging word, and your willingness to go the extra mile will provide the comfort and security they need to try again tomorrow.”
What struck me most about the touching, powerful letter is not only that the woman was able to show empathy toward her daughter’s murderer, but that it was addressed to teachers, encouraging them to continue doing their important, often underappreciated work.
As parents, we can do our best to appreciate teachers. I always stress out about teacher gifts, and then I try to remember that what would be more meaningful than a wrapped tchotchke is a simple homemade letter from my child, maybe decorated with glitter, maybe not, thanking them for what they do, thanking them for the priceless gift of a love for learning.
Follow Mary McCarthy on Twitter @marymac.