One teacher: the power of one

Life’s serendipitous moments stun me. This in itself is a bit surprising since moments like these show up frequently in my books and blogs. This week was no different. I had already begun this blog earlier in the week after receiving a card from my fourth grade teacher (Diane). That’s the way I often write: it starts with an idea that may percolate when I’m walking or cycling so I pause and dictate into my phone. Later when I find time I load it to WordPress. Then I revisit it over the next few days as it develops into its final form.

A few days after beginning the blog, I took a break in my remote work day to head to our nearby computer store to buy a backup charger for my work computer. Hybrid work has created all kinds of positives and negatives including the challenge of remembering everything needed for a day’s work as we go between home and our work place. I am not complaining about the luxury of working hybrid. (After all, yesterday I was able to fit time in the middle of the day to weave through Mary Young Park, take a short swim on Cedar Island and snack on fat, juicy blackberries.) However, in my once or twice a week bike commute to work I nearly always forget something. Coming home the other day it was my MacBook charger (and naturally its an upgrade from my older personal MacBook). I’m grateful to have an e-bike so I can more easily carry my lunch, clothes, computer, paperwork… but there always seems to be one more thing! So, I arrived at the shop to discover later summer hours – I was forty minutes early. Rather than go home to my dying computer, I strolled over to the nearby coffee shop to purchase the decaf coffee I hadn’t yet gotten to at home. It was there I ran into my acquaintance Gary who was having coffee with a friend. We briefly caught up our mutual interest, writing. I too inquired about the doctorate he recently finished in education, he a retired educator. I told him about my favorite teacher and her impact on my life, and this blog I had begun. He quickly jumped in – “Oh yes, the power of one. One teacher.” As his friend was introduced to me, another retired innovative educator, they added facts and depth to what I knew in my heart.

Last month I taught a session on journaling for well-being at the Oregon Education Association conference. It’s a tough time to be a teacher. Several I know are retiring, others just shrug and do their best – keeping that stiff upper lip. I see a parallel between people choosing to teach children and youth, and professional caregivers. Teachers and caregivers generally choose the career because of the love and passion in what they do; yet pandemic-related challenges have elevated already existing work challenges. During the journaling session, I mentioned two educators of my past – my fourth grade teacher and my daughters’ elementary principal. Both were in my life at important times and for different reasons. I too shared Mom’s own education journey, including transitioning from burnout in special education. She too was a special teacher for many.

As I look back on my own public school education, I remember all of my teachers. Of course there were a few that struggled, or in a few cases were taken advantage of by students (like my 9th grade social studies teacher who was routinely distracted by a student to enable another to climb out the window of the classroom). By and large, though, I was fortunate and connected with a number of teachers as I moved through various schools and into adulthood. However, as readers of this prior blog and My Music Man may recall, I did have one most favorite.

“I wish Mrs. Nelson hadn’t left to have a baby,” I said. “I really miss her.”
Mrs. Nelson was the buffer between me and the fourth-grade boys I fought with. Two boys in particular: Mark and Craig. I competed hard against them on the kickball diamond. They teased me and I fought back. Mrs. Nelson told me sometimes boys did this when they liked you, but didn’t know a better way to act—nobody had ever told me this before. And Mrs. Nelson was our coolest teacher yet: she introduced us to “Feelin’ Groovy” by Simon and Garfunkel, a song we were allowed to sing and dance to during the school music concert. It was the same year my parents were separated for three months, with Dad taking an apartment back in Portland. A tough year.

My Music Man, Chapter 12: Girl in a Boys’ World

In fact, not only did I write about this fourth grade Wilsonville Elementary School teacher in My Music Man, but I recognized that I based Annie’s special 4th grade teacher in Beyond the Ripples on this one from my past. I too created ‘Mr. Anderson’ to be another powerful teacher that Annie meets in high school.

From Annie’s note in the bottle – May 6, 2012
…..I hope someday to be a teacher. I think it would be good to be a teacher because they are so important for kids. Especially kids like me. Because especially one of my teachers really understands me and talks to me when things are hard. Hard at home. Because they are hard at home a lot. I don’t know if people know about that. but some of our secrets can’t be shared. So, I don’t do that, but somehow Mrs. Marquam understands me. She seems to understand me without asking any questions…”

You know, Annie,” he (Mr. Anderson) had said during an appointment the previous spring, “there are some things you can’t do-over in life.”
She had wondered then how much this teacher knew about her life, her family. Mr. Anderson was one of those teachers lots of kids liked, but just as many talked teasingly about behind his back.
“I bet down the road, maybe when you are as old as me,” he gave her a goofy look, stooped down, and shook his hands as if he was really old, and covered his teeth with his gums, “that you’ll be glad.”
Annie liked how he sometimes seemed like such a dip, and then laughed at himself. He wasn’t like some of the other teachers who hugged their power as if it was a cloak they only removed on special, personal occasions. They didn’t talk about this topic again, but when her dad invited her for the first time for a weekend soon after, Mr. Anderson’s comments influenced her decision to visit.”

Beyond the Ripples, Afterward – The Notes & Chapter 14: The Salty Air

And readers of Humanity’s Grace will recall Paul’s special teacher, Jason. Jason reflects back on this now grown up student Paul upon receiving an unexpected letter from Paul’s mother. It astounds Jason to learn the impact he made on this then boy. He too struggles wondering that even he, perhaps, could not change Paul’s ultimate trajectory.

In my discussion with Gary and his friend, I reflected on this Power of One. My Mrs. Nelson. Who was yours? We imagined that maybe even today in our challenged classrooms, perhaps this one thing can importantly remind teachers of the difference they might make for one child or youth in their classroom, or maybe a handful. Like my Mrs. Nelson. Maybe it’s at a specific time in a child’s life when they need that connector and that special human being who gets it. And oh my, what a gift. Just ask me.

What is it that makes that one teacher jive for us? I know my daughters had their most favorite teachers. For them, humor and honesty and compassion were top traits in each teacher. And it must be true that we need different teachers at different times and stages of our lives. For me in fourth grade, it was Mrs. Nelson while In college it was the outspoken environmentalist I had for biology that spoke to me: I was so worried about the environment and this teacher modeled someone who “walked the talk.” While we hope all teachers can connect with all kids, it’s probably fair to imagine some will connect better with certain kids than others. But we can hope in offering diversity of teachers that each kid can find their opportunity to feel special and connect with an adult. To reap the benefits of this power of one.

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