What Great Teachers Do

Last weekend, I had the privilege of attending my beautiful niece’s wedding. While my family and I were sitting at the table, waiting for the wedding party to arrive, a guest walked in that I hadn’t seen in quite some time. Instantly, I felt myself fill with emotion. As she walked towards our table, I looked at my wife and said, “She was so awesome.” After introducing myself, she remembered who I was and we talked about our lives a little bit before she moved to sit down. I’m not sure that woman knows how much she changed my life; maybe I don’t either.

As a kindergartner, I was small and shy and cried most days. At home, my dad was become very sick from being diabetic and I thought about him at school quite a bit. I had a great teacher Mrs. Erdman who was so sweet and did a great job making me comfortable at school. But, she was going to be having a baby and would be on maternity leave soon. Whoever was coming to replace her had very big shoes to fill. The replacement, Mrs. Tharp, did not disappoint.

I have very few memories from kindergarten, but the ones I have are of me crying at the teacher’s desk, just wanting to go home. Mrs. Tharp would have me come up and she would ask if I could try to stay at school just a little while longer. She would tell me stories about her horses and her dogs and it made me feel good enough to finish out the day. The day came where Mrs. Erdman came back, but I knew I was going to miss Mrs. Tharp.

As my time in elementary school passed by, I had many different experiences at school that helped me grow into someone who absolutely hated school. In first grade, my dad grew worse, had a stroke and was required to do dialysis at home multiple times per day. The only memories I have of first grade were of staying in at recess because of my handwriting. I remember my dad telling the teacher at conferences, “The only reason he comes to school is for recess. He hates it. Is there any other time he can work on his handwriting?” Apparently, there was not.

Second grade was awful. After being sick for what seemed like forever, in March of that school year, my dad died. I was crushed. I don’t have any memories of second grade. All I thought of that year was my dad.

Third grade was pretty great. My teacher Mrs. Kelly that year was really cool. She would read to us every day and do all kinds of voices for the characters. I absolutely love to read today. I’m sure she played a part in that.

Fourth grade was pretty bad. I’m sure it was a combination of many things, but it was the same teacher from second grade. That year was the most trouble I ever got into in school. My mom was called in for a conference a few times during that year. The teacher believed I needed medication. As you can imagine, I reverted back to hating school.

On the very last day of school in the district I attended, you would pick up your report card and find out who your teacher was going to be the next year. I was so happy that fourth grade was over, I couldn’t wait to pick up my report card. But, I was completely surprised by what the back of my report card said. My teacher for the next year was going to be Mrs. Tharp. Yeah, that Mrs. Tharp! The one from kindergarten! Going into the year, I had heard from an older friend of mine that fifth grade was about the last time I would have fun at school. Through him, I knew junior high was going to be all business and I was going to have to grow up in a hurry. So, fifth grade was my last chance to be a kid. I believe now it might have been my last chance to have someone change my mind about school.

So back to the wedding reception. I’m sitting at a table with my family, talking to one of my childhood heros Mrs. Tharp. I was so proud to tell her I was a teacher and how I care about my students to the point that I have cried the past two years when they leave. After a few minutes of catching up, she went to sit with others. Before she left, I’ll never forget her saying, “It sounds like you’ve got it figured out where you’re at.” She gave me a hug and said, “You keep loving those kids, they need it.”

As she walked away, I felt a lot of emotion and struggled to remember what we did in fifth grade. After some thought, I remembered I learned to sew that year, made homemade soap, and even ate some grizzly bear. But I had to really search for those memories. Instead, it was feelings that were easily coming back. I remember how welcoming she was. I remember her laughing and smiling. I think fifth grade might have been the year where I started to think maybe I could be ok even though I lost my dad. I think fifth grade is where I started smiling and laughing again. I know for sure, fifth grade is where I started to like school again.

So here I am now, preparing for my tenth year teaching. As I said before, I’m the teacher outside crying as I say goodbye and good luck to my eighth graders, knowing I won’t see many of them ever again. I’m the guy that emails last year’s students the first week of each year to make sure they are doing ok.
Why am I that way? I believe it is because of Mrs. Tharp’s inspiration. She inspired students to be kind, compassionate, and loving. So, if you read this far and are going back to school in a few weeks, I’m asking for your inspiration this year. Not for me though, but those kids sitting in your classroom that are in dire need of it. Inspire your students to be creative and curious. Inspire them to do things that they don’t even believe they can do. Above all, inspire kids to get emotional, jump out of a chair, and run to introduce themselves to you at a wedding reception twenty-five years after you have had them in class. Inspire kids because the world is so full of discouragement and sadness that kids need every bit of positivity in their lives so they can change the world.