Thank Your Teachers

“Two of her public school teachers, to whom she remains close, saw her potential and helped put her on a path that eventually led her to Harvard.”   It’s very nearly a throwaway line that occurs early in Dale Russakoff’s remarkable new book, “The Prize.” The book is the story of Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million donation to Newark’s public schools, but that particular line refers to Patricia Chan, who, after becoming the first in her family to attend college, became a pediatrician and later married Mr. Zuckerberg.  Read the book, but, first, let’s dig into that one sentence.

Two facts jump out at me. The first is a familiar story: good teachers change their students’ lives.  The second is less common, I suspect: Dr. Chan has remained close to those teachers. I infer that she reached out to express her gratitude and has continued the connection.  Bless her for that.  Just imagine how gratifying that has to be for her former teachers.

Have you done that?  The fact that you are reading this suggests that you care about education and that it worked for you, well enough for you to stay connected to the field.

Please close your eyes and picture the teacher(s) who changed your life for the better.  When I do that, I see Mrs. Peterson, my first grade teacher at Hindley School, and two high school English teachers, Mr. William Sullivan and Mr. Roland McKinley. Mrs. Peterson taught me to read and made me feel safe, and the two men pushed and prodded and encouraged me to aim higher and write more clearly.

I was able to say ‘thank you’ in person to just one of them, Mrs. Peterson, and will go to my grave regretting never having expressed my gratitude to Mr. Sullivan and Mr. McKinley.

Have you reached out?  I promise that, if you do, your gesture will mean the world to the men and women who taught you so effectively.

I know this from a personal experience. As you may know, I retired from the PBS NewsHour and Learning Matters at the end of July. I announced the move in this blog.

In response, I received a few hundred emails. While one or two said, ‘About damn time,’ most comments were gracious.  No response surprised me more than a letter–out of the blue–from a former student of mine at Paul D. Schreiber High School in Port Washington, New York, where I taught English in 1964-65 and 1965-66, right after graduating from college.

Dear John (Mr. Merrow),

You were my high school English teacher at Schreiber, and I was your least successful (at at the time) student (much later diagnosed with learning disorders), but of all the teachers I’ve ever had, you made the most indelible impression. You made every book, poem and story come alive, approaching each one from open angles and creating lots of room for opinion and broad discussion. You taught me how to think, approach challenge, voice opinion and appreciate others’ points of view, not to mention instilling pretty good grammar and spelling skills!

I mean this honestly: her words mean more to me than any of the stuff that has come my way during my 41 years of reporting, which includes a couple of Peabody Awards, the George Polk Award, the McGraw Prize and some honorary degrees. One student cared enough to reach out and recall what happened in my classroom 42 years ago, and my heart swells with pride every time I read her words.

Teachers put up with a lot of bashing from politicians and test score fetishists.  Perhaps those of us who appreciate teachers (a majority, according to the latest PDK/Gallup poll) should make an effort to reconnect with the teachers who helped shape our lives.  Do that, and you will make their day/week/year, I promise.  And if enough of us do this, perhaps we can begin to turn the tide.

If you cannot find contact information for the teachers you want to connect with, please consider posting your words of praise and appreciation on this blog for others to read.  In these days of social media, your words may eventually make their way back to your teachers.



7 thoughts on “Thank Your Teachers

  1. Agreed, John. I’ve written to a number of former teachers over the years, written several newspaper columns about former teachers, and urged readers to do the same. Having both sent notes to former teachers and received notes from former students, I agree it’s deeply gratifying – both ways.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I am rich but not because I made millions doing what I did for a living. Public school teachers never earn big bucks. But I am rich because of the incredible support of the two school communities in which I spent most of my adult years.
    In Washington DC i inaugurated the first public preschool. C was a student in my class 16 years ago. He stayed with me two years because he was autistic and had sensory integration issues. I could never touch him but he would lean against me.
    Last fall by chance I met C. with his family in DC. He is 21 this year, and when he saw me he said ” I am ready for that hug now.” He writes often and has expressed a wish to visit, to stay in contact.
    Now I live on an island and I started another preschool program in the local elementary. Not so long ago I fell off a counter in my classroom (yes, teachers climb to create bulletin boards) and I broke many bones. A fire fighter father carried me home from the hospital. Families visited me and brought meals. Shortly thereafter I developed cancer. Again, families drove me to treatments, brought me books, and enticed me with food.
    Teaching is hard, and poorly paid. But what I received in return is worth millions.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I am the luckiest of the lucky.

    Not only did I have the most extraordinary teacher in high school, but I was able to reconnect with him much later, to forge a life and a career in school reform with him. His bone-deep commitment to learning helped form my intellect, and together, we developed ideas that I hope will influence education for many years to come.

    At first, almost 40 years ago, he was my teacher. But even then, he had no patience for artificial divisions between teacher and learner. In his mind, we were all in this together, or else we were at odds. And we needed to be in this together, if there was to be true progress in learning.

    This great man– Grant Wiggins– affected every aspect of my work, my intellect, and my commitments. Though he is now gone, I will forever treasure the small commitments he made to me long ago, when I was his student, and the ways in which he retained his belief in my abilities over many, many years. And I know that hundreds of Grant’s other students share the same gratitude.

    Like all great teachers, Grant saw the value in every one of his students, and he encouraged and built upon our strengths. We students have all taken different paths, but so many of us have sent messages since Grant’s death in May, all thankful for the belief he placed in us.

    Great teachers believe in, and build upon, the unique gifts of their students. There is no other choice, if one is truly to develop minds and souls.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you John. I couldn’t agree with you more. I’m a 29 year veteran educator, and it is extraordinarily gratifying to have students come back and express their thanks. I, too, have had teachers who had a profound impact on me. Since I can’t find them, I’d love to thank them here. Ms. Marion, Ms. Steinle, Mr. Harmon, and Mr. Ahearn from the Ridgewood Public Schools, and Prof. Gary McDonough, from New College. You all have inspired me and helped to shape the person that I have become. I can’t thank you enough.

    Liked by 1 person

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