“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.