For this year’s Teacher Appreciation Week, we gathered thoughts from our team on teachers in their lives that made a particular impact, and will be sharing them with you over the course of this week. Our first post features thoughts from our leadership team.
My 11th grade pre-calculus teacher, Mr. Lane, drove me insane. I never really cleanly fit in any box during my K-12 years but he saw something in me that I did not fully appreciate at that time. I recall him pulling me aside and talking to me about applying to Boys State, a program dedicated to building future civic leaders. I realized quickly the application was due in short order so he sat with me several afternoons that week and took time to craft a thoughtful recommendation for me. I remember thinking “this kid” sounds amazing – but he believed in me, which fueled me to work harder and never settle. So often we think about the impact teachers have on our academic development, but Mr. Lane impacted my social, emotional, and certainly professional development as I carried his approach into my classroom when I started my teaching career.
My third-grade teacher, Mrs. Kathleen Vinski, changed my entire outlook on school and education. I had struggled as a child in school up until third grade due to the need for glasses. By the time I started third grade (with glasses!) I had had too many negative experiences and was not engaged at all. Mrs. Vinski saw something in me, though, and poured into me her passion for learning. She made learning fun, exciting, and most importantly began to speak to me about what a good education could mean for my future. I will always be thankful for being placed in her class that year, for her kindness, and her love of teaching. She passed away just a few years later, which was a hard thing to process, but I have been and always will be thankful for how she turned around my outlook on school and learning. It truly changed my life.
I had the chance to take chemistry with Mr. Smith twice after he successfully lobbied to make my class his guinea pigs for a new AP level course. He was an incredible teacher who not only made sense of the world’s elements and forces from a scientific perspective, but who also added a sense of fun and whimsy to class with his Beatles-themed neck ties and love of Disney World. Perhaps his biggest impact on me, though, was the reassurance he offered when I returned for a visit after my first semester at Princeton. As a first-generation college student, I was struggling to find my place on the ivy-covered campus and was feeling all the ways it seemed I was different from my classmates. When I shared my self-doubts in a particularly long-winded confessional, Mr. Smith smiled. Then he told me that I was there, for the moment that was enough, and he was proud of me.
When I was in fifth grade, the scariest part of recess was Mrs. Wormke, one of three sixth grade teachers at the open-concept elementary school I attended in Wyoming. Mrs. Wormke was tall and expressive and frightening in the way she commanded….respect. She expected students to line up when asked. She expected us to be polite and kind to one another. And she did so with a sense of humor that comes from years of students and life in a small town where everyone really does know one another. She terrified me.
All summer long each year, I waited for the first day of school. The first day of sixth grade, my excitement turned to dread when I read my name under Mrs. Wormke’s bold heading. A whole year with mean Mrs. Wormke…turned into my favorite year of school. She taught me the value of expectations and respect. She taught me how valuable it was to be a smart, nerdy girl who loved to read. And she taught me the importance of giving someone a chance to be an important part of your world.
It’s been a lot of years since I was in sixth grade, but Mrs. Wormke and I still exchange Christmas cards every single year.
Dr. Sandra Alexander was my freshman English teacher in college and was the first professional Black woman I met who had attended Harvard. Not only was she beautiful but obviously very smart. As a first-generation college attendee, I didn’t have many role models that could inspire me to achieve academic success, have a serious career, and still be a gracious, beautiful southern belle. I saw her several years ago and had the opportunity to share how she impacted me.
In first grade, my teacher Mrs. Haskell noticed that I needed a little structure to stay focused throughout the week, so she created a weekly checklist for me that was personalized with things I liked to do in class. We would fill it out together at the end of each week to see if I had met my goals and made progress on my assignments. She also convinced my parents to create the ultimate reward/motivation: if I got 100% on all of my weekly checklists for a month straight, I would get to go bowling. I think I only went bowling two or three times that year, but Mrs. Haskell’s personalized attention and care set me on the right track!
When I was younger, I was told people that look like me aren’t usually good at science. I began to convince myself I hated science and avoided it at all costs, until high school. When I was in the ninth grade, I made it clear to my counselor that I didn’t see the purpose of taking biology classes. I wasn’t planning on going to college and couldn’t understand why it was a graduation requirement. My counselor asked one of the biology teachers to have lunch with me. The biology teacher spent many of her lunch periods speaking with me about my interests and slowly introducing related biology concepts. I started to get excited about science and even joined the science club. By the end of the year, I was not only excited to take more science classes but also started looking into colleges with strong science programs. I appreciated her then and every day since.
In first grade I had a very bad reaction to taking penicillin for the first (and last) time, and had to miss school for over a month while I recovered. I’ll never forgot how Mrs. Davis went out of her way for me during this time. She visited and brought over work for me to do several times (I remember being awestruck by the fact that my teacher was in my HOUSE!) and delivered special things that she had the class make for me – get well soon cards, drawings, crafts, etc., and she even brought me some treats sometimes. Her visits were the highlight of my days, and she absolutely helped get me through a very difficult time.
I was a voracious reader, but my junior year in high school my personal reading was taking away from my assigned readings in English class. My teacher, Mrs. Robinson, finally took me aside to discuss why my grades were sliding – and why I didn’t appear to be completing the class readings. She would have had every right to grade me harshly under the circumstances since I was not keeping up with the books she’d assigned. But when she found out what I actually was reading, she was impressed, and in several instances permitted me to quietly substitute books from my own reading list for those she had assigned to the class and to complete writing assignments and projects based on them as well.
It was a lesson about learning engagement and differentiation that I never forgot as a teacher myself. At a point where she could have stifled my love of learning by forcing me into assignments of her choosing, she allowed me to demonstrate the same abilities in a way that met my interests while ultimately exceeding grade level expectations. I’m a better reader and still grateful for this lesson.