All In: Appreciating the Teachers Who Help Us Find Our Way
We remember our school days based on two groups of people—the adults and classmates who made us feel small and those who helped us find our way.
I often speak of a handful of high school English teachers—Mrs. Clark, Mrs. Joseph and Mr. Fuller—who in some way changed the course of my life because in word and in deed they made me feel like I belonged. They helped me find my way. Lately, maybe it’s because I just had another birthday, I’ve been thinking about my elementary and middle school days, and a person came to mind who I had not thought of in years.
I grew up in a dusty little town in Eastern Washington state. When I was in the 4th grade, our house burnt down – to the ground. We moved from one not very good part of town to another, and I changed schools. That fall, I walked into 5th grade at Eastgate Elementary and into Mrs. Peterson’s class.
Mrs. Peterson talked to me like I was an adult and told me that I had a brain and I should use it. She loved that I loved to read and said so. That winter, Mrs. Peterson told us that our class was going to paint a picture of a historical scene from Washington state history. The picture would hang at the entrance to the main office. She gave us packets of social studies work and said when we were done with each day’s work, we could paint. The independent social studies work and the painting of the picture would both last for about six weeks.
For the first day or two, I completed the work, put it in the folder with my name on it and then painted. It soon occurred to me, however, that I could rush through the work (or not even do it), and spend more time painting. After a few weeks, the painting was half finished and I had done very little work.
At the end of one school day, Mrs. Peterson called me to her desk. She opened my folder, looked down at the pile of half done and blank worksheets, and then handed me a note addressed to my mother. She told me to take the note to my mom and said that my mom needed to meet with her and me the next day. I took the note home, gave it to my mom and pleaded with her not to tell my dad. School was a scary place for my parents. My mother had dropped out during the 10th grade, and my dad never went back to school after 6th grade.
When the final bell rang the next day, I walked to the office with Mrs. Peterson where we would meet my mom. Mrs. Peterson showed my mom the folder and told her what I had done. Mrs. Peterson went on to explain that she had trusted me and I had violated that trust. Most importantly, she told my mom, in front of me, that she was pretty convinced that I was a smart kid. She said that I could accomplish a lot in my life if I set my mind to it and if I honored the commitments that I made, including doing my social studies work before painting. She told us that I couldn’t paint on the picture until all of my work was caught up and completed at a satisfactory level. In addition, I would have to behave in a way that would regain her trust in the months ahead.
What I heard her say was that I was a smart kid and that I could accomplish a lot in my life if I set my mind to it.
Unfortunately, I didn’t hear any more messages like that after my year with Mrs. Peterson until I was in the 10th grade when I met Mrs. Clark. But the message stuck with me – even until today. Teachers were mostly nice to me, and most helped me along the way, but Mrs. Peterson gave me hope for the future and laid out a path to get me there.
Thank you Mrs. Peterson, Mrs. Clark, Mr. Fuller, Mrs. Joseph and the many other teachers who made a positive difference in my life. You helped me find my way. Thank you, also, to all of the teachers in Montgomery County Public Schools. What you do today and every day helps our students find their way and gives them hope for the future.
As we all know, learning doesn’t stop when you become an adult. I am constantly learning about new ideas and exploring new perspectives. I do this through books, articles and podcasts. Each blog, I will share a few of the most interesting ones with you. Some have made me ask questions, some have irritated me; others have made me smile or frown. I hope they make you think critically and open doors to new information and ideas.
The following letter is from Ashleigh Nelson, a senior at Clarksburg High School, sent to members of the Board of Education and me. In it, Ashleigh details her experiences with Early College, her hesitance to enroll, the challenges it presented, and how it completely changed her life.
My Experience in the Early College Program, by Ashleigh Nelson