The school year will begin over the next several weeks, mostly right after a relaxed three-day Labor Day weekend. Each year at this time I reflect on the teachers who influenced members of my family.
Last year my three-days were more special than most, because I spent the time with my thirty-something daughter. As I thought about beginning the school year my mind kept wandering back to the years the two of us started school together, she as a student and me as a teacher.
During a recent Labor Day holiday I listened to my daughter, now a physician, talk about her work and her life, marveling at her competence, eagerness to learn, empathy, discipline, and, yes, her sense of fun. More than once during our conversations I thought about the teachers who helped her develop and strengthen these skills, people who took her interests into consideration — as well as the required topics.
A preschool teacher encouraged my daughter to get up and keep going after a fall or a spat, and her kindergarten teacher recognized her love of books but also reminded her to relax and play. In second grade her teacher came to the rescue when my daughter wanted to bring a book to read at recess, and this same gifted educator suggested that she “become an author” and write her own books.
Once a week in second grade each child was encouraged think of a hard word and learn how to spell it. Boy was my husband surprised one day, as he worked on his public health policy dissertation, when our daughter, age seven, came up to his desk and happily spelled epidemiology. She told him that she liked the way the word looked when she saw it on his pages and asked to know more about what it meant. I just know that teacher suggested that she ask her dad for more information.
Her fifth grade teacher suggested that my daughter keep a journal on a trip to Australia and then asked for observations about the Great Barrier Reef during a mapping lesson. From that point on and without being asked, my daughter created delightful small booklets, filled with observations, photos, drawings, mementos, on each vacation, no matter how long or short, near or far.
We were awed by sixth grade, ninth grade, and twelfth grade science teachers who tutored their students on the steps that strong researchers take if they want solid and reliable results. Some of those teachers are still at work, striving to help their students make careful and critical judgements about the unlimited digital resources in our lives.
I also remembered the seventh grade teacher who went to great lengths to ensure that our daughter felt strong and confident in math, encouraging her to solve harder and harder problems, but more importantly, emphasizing that there may be lots of different ways to solve the same problem. “Tell me if you need more time to figure something out,” he told her, noting again and again that speed wasn’t the only measure of math ability.
In seventh and eighth grades three talented English teachers focused on editing as did an amazing ninth grade educator who continually underscored the importance of rewriting and using words wisely.
I can go on and on.
Was technology a part of all this learning? Yes, beginning in second grade my daughter had ample access to computers at home and school. Digital tools made mundane tasks easier and access to information instantaneous. Social media had not arrived yet. (Mark Zuckerman is only a couple of years younger than my daughter). Her teachers, however, made the real difference — serving as guides and cheerleaders, figuring out her interests, and helping her understand that learning is exciting, engaging, but not always easy.
As educators everywhere begin the school this year, I toast colleagues near and far, especially those who have joined the profession and stayed, developing long-term wisdom and skill. May they have the strength to feel competent and confident, even as they cope with the negative politics, know-it-all corporate officials, and programs that encourage young people to teach for a year or two before moving on to something “better.”
Teachers change lives — day by day, lesson by lesson — helping children develop the competence, empathy, discipline, and, yes, a sense of joy when it comes to acquiring knowledge.