With the start of a new school year, I was thinking about the teachers who have influenced my life, and I’d like to give them credit here. I think it’s important for all of us to occasionally think about how we got to where we are now, and who helped us out in that journey.
This morning, as I was scrolling through my Facebook feed, I came across a youtube video, posted by a former classmate of mine. Not only is he my former classmate, but his mother was my first grade teacher. As a six year old, I simply knew her as my beloved, Mrs. Greenwood, the person who helped me begin my literacy journey and love for reading. Since I ended up being a reading teacher and avid reader, I firmly believe that had I not had Mrs. Greenwood as my teacher, I would have ended up differently. At the age of 105, Mrs. Greenwood is still alive and active in her support of the elementary school in Denver named in her honor. Obviously I was not the only person who she influenced in her long teaching career. But even more important is the legacy she left in Denver Public Schools. Mrs. Greenwood was the first African American teacher awarded tenure in DPS and the first to teach outside of the Northeast section of the city in a primarily white school. The barriers she had to face and ultimately break down were immense, and she did so with grace and tenaciousness. I am so fortunate to have been lucky enough to have her as my first grade teacher!
I invite you to watch the following video (one of many on you tube) that highlights this influential teacher: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c_xETa0IKgE
Another teacher who impacted my educational journey, was my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Maxine Kaiser. A tough teacher with high standards, she taught me to love history (which became my college major), to take pride in my work, and to enjoy my musical talents. From the end of 5th grade until I graduated from high school, Mrs. Kaiser was my piano teacher. Under her tutelage, I became a piano teacher myself during high school, working with several beginning piano students. This was my first foray into teaching, and I fell in love with it. By the time I was a senior in high school, I knew I wanted to be a teacher; the only question was teacher of what? I believe that Mrs. Kaiser is the person who helped me see that teaching was my calling, and for that, I’m very grateful.
When I was in junior high school, my older sister, who was in high school at the time and had a boyfriend in the orchestra, took me to see the famous “West High School Singing Christmas Tree.” I was enthralled. As a sixth grader, I decided then and there that I was going to sing on that tree when I got to high school. With that goal in mind, I made sure that I was enrolled in choir every year to prepare for it. And fortunately for me, when auditions came around during the spring of my sophomore year, I made it into the Concert Choir, and thus, The Singing Christmas Tree. Mr. Flukey was our choir director, and also another major influence on me. He set high standards for his choir. We were expected to come in early one or two days a week from September to December to better learn our parts, and this was in the days before high schoolers were bussed to school. We were expected to be in class, on time, everyday. This in a school with a 61% graduation rate, which gives you a pretty good idea of overall attendance rates. He one time said that he considered himself fortunate; it didn’t matter to him if students were smart or stupid, good students or bad, just if they could sing. We had all types of students in our class, but no one misbehaved for Mr. Flukey. It just wasn’t done! Again, he influenced me by establishing high expectations that were for everyone, regardless of anything else.
During high school, one other person was a major influence in my life. Mrs. Irma James. Mrs. James was my counselor who then became Dean of Girls. She made it clear that we were her “children,” that she would take care of all of us, and in return, we would accept responsibility and behave according to her standards. When we gave a teacher a hard time, she came into our class and let it be known that our behavior was unacceptable, would change…and it did. Mrs. James was a great deal younger than Mrs. Greenwood, but like Mrs. Greenwood, she was an African American teacher and administrator in a system that was still primarily white. Mrs. James attended our 40th high school reunion (and out dressed all of us!) and will next month attend our 50th high school reunion. To say it is an honor to have this amazing woman think enough of her students from 50 years ago to attend such a function is an understatement. But more important is the fact that she was such an important influence on our lives that we want her to be present! In high school, the fact that she cared about us made a difference; it still does.
So, as the new school year begins, think about what type of influence you want to be on your students. What do you want them to come away with from the year they spend with you? Do you want them to develop a love and appreciation for reading, for history, for music? Do you want them to realize that because you care deeply about them that you have high expectations that you know they can and will reach?
I believe that we as educators hold the key on influence. We can be a positive or negative influence. Regardless of all the issues surrounding you, your school, and your classroom, decide what you want your influence to be and how you will make that goal come to pass.