I’ll never forget a teacher I had in the second grade who had long hair and big glasses that made her eyes look exceptionally large. She loved whales and her classroom was bright and cheerful. She made me feel like every question I asked was the best one she had ever heard.
I had a middle school teacher who made Greek Mythology seem like the most interesting subject in the world, and another who read aloud to us — even though we were seventh graders — in a soft and enchanting voice that made the whole class hang on her every word.
I had an eighth-grade teacher who presented American history like an action-adventure movie that you couldn’t get enough of, driven by complex personalities and filled with drama, betrayal and heroics.
But, the teacher I’ve had these last two school years has impacted me just as much as any teacher I ever had as a student. This teacher wasn’t mine, but my children’s teacher: my older daughter’s last year, and my younger daughter’s this year. She was the teacher who said goodbye to my oldest daughter on a Friday afternoon in March 2020, with the parting words, “Don’t forget to study for the test on Monday!” and then didn’t see her in person again until a drive-by 5th grade graduation in June.
Thanks to this teacher, I was stopped in my tracks early on, and it changed how I approached the next year.
In those first weeks of the pandemic, when we were all in lockdown, fashioning masks out of spare cloth and Clorox-wiping our groceries, this teacher sent a note to her students, whose lives had all just been turned upside down, in which she talked about how she was experiencing a variety of emotions each day — gratitude for her and her family’s health, sadness about missing her students, anxiety about what the future would bring. She assured her students that if they were feeling any of these things, they should know it was okay, and encouraged them to take things a day at a time and to “please, please, please” reach out if they needed anything at all. She signed off, “I am missing your smiles, laughter, terrible jokes and constant naggings for an extra recess. #believeitornot.”
Reading this note brought tears to my eyes. I think in my mama-bear-mode, I was working so hard to protect my kids from the anxiety and darkness that was everywhere and reassure them that they had nothing to worry about — “It’s going to be fine!” was playing on a rotating loop in my head at an increasingly frantic speed and volume — that I wasn’t allowing room for them to feel. Thanks to this teacher, I was stopped in my tracks early on, and it changed how I approached the next year.
I made space for my kids’ feelings — for being angry and sad. For hating remote learning and feeling short-changed for missing out on normal kid life. Yes, my kids needed to be grateful for all that they had — the other phrase playing on loop in my noisy mind — but they also needed space to feel everything else. Without this teacher, I’m convinced I would not have learned that lesson so early.
Over the course of the rest of last year and all of this year, she has continued to amaze me. She stayed connected to the kids during remote learning, finding a way to make dreaded video calls fun with scavenger hunts, trivia contests and talent shows. She kept a focus on the academics, but never lost sight of the fact that these were kids, dealing with something no other kids ever had.
At the start of this year, she found ways to connect with and truly get to know her new students on the two days a week she saw them in person, and used the one day a week she had them all remotely to create a sense of community. She seemed to somehow be available all the time, on every medium, to all her students. She brought enthusiasm to every task and every day.
When schools abruptly shifted back to five-days-a-week in-person this April, she didn’t miss a beat, taking what had basically been two separate classes and bringing them together so that by the end of the first week, my daughter was talking about kids she had only been in class with for five days as though they had been together all year.
What a gift to have this amazing teacher in our lives for two school years — and especially these two school years. What a bright spot she’s been with her endless wisdom, tireless energy, enthusiasm, humor and encouragement. I know I’ll never be able to thank her adequately for what she’s given to us, but just as I still remember all those wonderful teachers from my childhood who made an impact on me, I know my daughters will forever remember her — as will I.
The best teachers stay with us long after we’ve left their classrooms.