I have a confession to make. I have a box in my garage that I take out every time I am wondering about whether I am making a difference in this world. It’s not full of trophies. There are no framed awards in the box. Nothing is engraved or embossed. It is a box of notes and gifts I received as a teacher. Some are on beautifully printed cards. Most are on college ruled paper. Some of the things in the box only I would understand- like the blue ribbon from one of my seniors that he got for showing his dog; or the watercolor a father painted for me after I coached his son in track; or the flyer commemorating the march from Selma to Montgomery that a graduate sent me with a small rock she picked up on that very bridge. The handwritten notes thanking me for things I would have said were “just doing my job” but that seemed big to a teenager. Unnecessary apologies from kids who were just being kids but who were mortified by their actions as they matured. Candy canes stuck to notecards wishing me a relaxing winter break without homework to grade. Invitations to graduation parties. College graduation notices. Wedding invitations. Precious remnants of life as a teacher.
You see, teaching is a really hard job. Whether you are an elementary teacher working with 30 students all day or a secondary teacher seeing 150 students in 55-minute blocks throughout the day, you are completely focused on them the whole time. You spend your free time thinking of new ways to engage your students in the learning. You worry about not reaching that kid in the back who seems to be fading out of school. You cheer for them to succeed in and out of the classroom. You hope they believe you when you tell them that they can do it; that they are smart enough. You pray they will be persistent enough to get it and resilient enough to survive the painful times they come up short. I believe that at the core of every teacher is a desire to make a difference in the lives of their students. It is not just to impart academic knowledge but to play a part in developing healthy, happy, competence adults. It is helping them navigate growing up, solve problems, and negotiate with adults. It is helping them discover and develop their talents and passions. It is helping them overcome their fears. Failure in any of that is, frankly, painful as a teacher. Being a teacher is not just a job like any other job. Being a teacher is central to who you are as a person. It is a calling.
In my own life, teachers have been so important in helping me to become who I am today. I am sure every one of them would say that they were just doing their jobs. But they are wrong. They were doing so much more. Ms. Rassmussen was my kindergarten teacher at Sunset Elementary School. She was so kind and patient that even today, when I think of her, I picture a fairy princess. I was so scared to go to kindergarten and she made it a place I wanted to be. Sister Estelle at St. Luke’s gave me big bear hugs for seemingly no reason at all. She knew I needed them even when I did not. Mrs. Elam at Redan High School wouldn’t cut me any slack when I did not understand freshman science. She believed in me even when I did not. Mr. Rabitoy at Mt. Si High School made me want to be a biology teacher. Mr. Byrd at Redan High School taught me that the only person who could limit what I could learn is me. Mr. Harshmann at Pinelake Junior High, who noticed I was not acting normal in class, took on the school bully for me. I became a principal because of Mr. Venn at Mt. Si High School. Dr. Lokken gave me my first shot at teaching with a job teaching CHEM101 lab at the University of Alaska. Dr. Guest taught me to live my best life to the very last moment even if I know that moment is coming soon. Madame Seay at Redan High School taught me that smart girls are powerful girls. Mr. Odum, who was forced to enter me in the 100 m lows (I’m 5’4”) to satisfy the district rules in track and field, taught me to lose with grace and to win with grace.
I have written my share of thank you notes to teachers as a student. Now that I am a parent, I feel that gratitude so much more deeply. It is an amazing thing to know that your child is surrounded by caring adults who know her well and want her to succeed. Though I have thanked many, I know I can do better. I think it is natural to thank a teacher at the end of the school year. Those are very special notes. I know teachers appreciate knowing that they are making a difference throughout the year too. In December, when everyone is tired and cold and waiting impatiently for the winter break, a note of thanks will make a teacher’s day, or week, or even year. A thank you note to a teacher is like a long drive in golf- getting one will keep you playing with a smile for a very long time. In fact, I know teachers appreciate knowing they made a difference whenever you are ready to tell them. You might be thinking of a teacher right now that you had many years ago in school. It’s not too late to tell them that they made a difference in your life.
To all the teachers, school counselors, school staff members and principals, thanks in advance for making a difference in so many children’s lives this year!
I selected this picture of a Eurasian Eagle Owl because it reminded me of the first teacher I ever knew- my Aunt Marita. She loved owls and had a jewelry box full of owl necklaces. I think owls look wise, as teachers are, so I always thought that was why she had so many. Perhaps she only liked them because they were beautiful. I took this photograph in a bird photography class I recently took. I learned so much in the class. I am thankful for that teacher for this beautiful shot.
(1/250 sec., f/6.3, 450 mm, 1600 ISO)