Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Teacher Appreciation

June 9, 2009

As my seniors get ready to attend the the graduation ceremony that marks the culmination of years of hard work, one of the things I ask them to do is to consider those who have helped them reach this goal. I firmly believe these two things: No man is an island, and we should strive to recognize and acknowledge those who have reached out a hand in some way in our lives.

I tell my seniors that although their own hard work, dedication, and perseverance have served them well in reaching this milestone, none of them has done it completely on their own. There are parents who have encouraged, teachers who have nurtured, employers who have mentored, and spiritual leaders who have guided. There are counselors, custodians, secretaries, aunts, uncles, older siblings, grandparents, neighbors. We are all a product of all of those who touch our lives--shaped by the way we choose to interact with those people, and the way they choose to interact with us.

Because graduation night is an acknowledgment of accomplishment, I ask my seniors to also acknowledge some of those people who have been, in some way, a guide on their journey. I ask them to choose two individuals who have made some impact on them, and I ask them to write a letter showing the way in which their support has encouraged them throughout their high school years. (I ask that the letter be handwritten, by the way. I find that the kids make it more personal, more thoughtful if they have to write it out in old-fashioned long hand. I also provide them with a variety of papers to write on. Very old-school.) I believe it's important to let those people in your life know your gratitude and appreciation. Some of them, of course, already know the vital role they play in your life, but that's not always the case. Sometimes, without even realizing, someone in our life will be there at the right moment with the right word or deed. Either way, when we acknowledge the importance of that support, it can be very powerful.

Each year when I ask my students to do this, I realize that I myself should, after so many years, recognize some of the teachers in my life who have made the greatest impact. All of my teachers throughout my life have had some impact on me, but there are four who made a profound difference in who I am as a person, and their influence is in me even today, so many years after I left the halls of my own high school. Most of them, I am fairly certain, are aware that they touched a young girl's life. Perhaps, however, they don't know the extent to which that was (and is) true. I would love to take this opportunity to publicly acknowledge those people here.

Mrs. Diane Belman
Of all the people who have come in and out of my life, besides my mother and my sister, she had the greatest impact on who I am as a person. I was fortunate enough to have her as my 9th, 10th, and 12th grade English teacher. I later came back and did my student teaching for her. From the moment I first walked into her class, I knew there was something amazing about this woman. She strove to welcome each individual student into her world, her classroom. She was passionate about her subject matter, she was passionate about teaching, and most importantly, she was passionate about the kids who walked into her room. She wasn't just a teacher to us; she was an extra mom. When she found out that I was interested in being an elementary school teacher, she asked if I had ever considered high school English. I hadn't. I didn't have the confidence to believe that could ever know enough to stand in front of a high school class to teach. She did have that confidence in me. She saw my love of language and my love of literature, and helped me recognize the aptitude I had. She never pushed or tried to lead me in a particular direction; she merely suggested something I thought was out of reach, and allowed me to see how easily it could fall within my grasp. She is a true teacher, in that she sees her job, her passion, as helping students see what they can be capable of. She is the kind of loving, giving, and empathetic human being I have tried to emulate in my own life. She is an amazing mother, an unparalleled teacher, and a true friend. She nurtured in me a confidence as a writer, a reader, a teacher, and as a person that I didn't even know was there when I first met her. She saw what I could not, and it is because of her that I am where I am now.

Mr. Greg Greenman
Greenman (as we all called him--no Mr.) was my freshman Algebra teacher and later, my Geometry teacher. Math was not typically my strong suit--something I attribute to a traumatizing math incident all the way back in 4th grade. I eventually came to believe that I simply had no head for math, and I would have to learn to live with that deficit. When I entered Greenman's class, however, that changed. Certainly not immediately, but gradually over time, I began to recognize that I had been operating under a false assumption about my ability to comprehend (and succeed in) math. How did this happen? Well, Greenman, like all good teachers, went out of his way to make a connection first. What I loved about him was his sarcasm and his wit. He made math interesting to listen to because he spoke my language. And unlike some other teachers I had, he not only encouraged but enjoyed the repartee and banter of his students. We ENGAGED in the language of math through his delivery. Somehow, he made this very shy little wallflower want to sit up and participate in class discussions because I could SPEAK sarcasm. (Just ask my current students--they'll verify this.) Once I started joining in, I realized that I really did have something to contribute, and could certainly keep up in the class. I can still distinctly remember when we had Open House that year. I had Algebra 6th period, so by the time my mom got there, she had already met with several of my other teachers. She walked up and introduced herself, and before he could say anything, she repeated what she'd been told in all my other classes. "Yes, yes, I know. Donna's a great student, but very shy. She never says anything, but gets all of her work done." Greenman's incredulous response was, "Mayes??? (That was my maiden name--he called us all by our last names.) Are you kidding??? Shy and quiet? Never! She talks non-stop in this class!" I'm sure I shot him some witty comeback while sheepishly grinning. I adored that man, and oddly, I adored my math class. Not math, mind you, but math class. Delievery is incredibly important. Greenman was the first teacher to really help bring me out of my shell, and I realized I really liked it. I could speak out in front of a group of people and not feel intimidated or self-conscious. And I realized I could be funny (at least in my own mind). I realize that much of my own interaction with students in my classroom is shaped by what I learned in Greenman's room.

Mr. Pat Gutierrez
Mr. Gutierrez was another teacher I had for multiple years. He was my Spanish teacher for two years. He was soft-spoken and was always incredibly calm, despite having a classroom full of squirrelly adolescents in his charge. I don't ever remember him raising his voice, actually. He didn't need to. We respected and loved him, and wanted to learn from him. I loved his accent, and tried hard to duplicate it. He was funny and always accessible. He had an incredible wealth of knowledge that he was excited to share. He treated us all fairly and with respect, and I really appreciated that. Even the kids who didn't share his excitement and love of the language--he treated them no differently than the students who were eager to learn. All of his students were worthy of the same time, effort, and energy. He didn't give up on his kids, and I believe he genuinely liked all of us. He was incredibly youthful-looking, even as long as he had already been teaching, and I believe that was because he truly enjoyed the time he spent teaching, and the time he spent with the kids. For some teachers, hanging out with 15 year-olds all day long makes them feel old. For Mr. Gutierrez, hanging out with 15 year-olds made him perpetually young. That's what happens when you love what you do. I seriously considered going into bilingual education for awhile after being in his class. He's an amazing teacher, I feel blessed to have been in his class.

Mrs. Debbie (Mik) Mennucci
When I came to my high school, I didn't know a soul. We moved between my 8th and 9th grade years. Being such a shy kid made making new friends a rather difficult and traumatic process for me, but a serendipitous meeting between my mom and the band director changed the direction of my life in a profound way. Before we moved, I had tried out for and made the majorette team for the high school I was supposed to attend. At my new school, there was a solo twirler, but no team. My mom negotiated a spot for me on an alternate team. The band auxilliary advisor offered me a spot on either the colorguard team or the drill team, whichever I chose. Although I had no experience in dance, I was allowed to join the drill team. Being a part of that group was pivotal in my high school experience. I was immediately part of a family--a big, huge inseparable group that spent hours and hours of time together over the course of our four years. There were practices, band reviews, competitions, parades, band camps, football games. We probably spent as much time with these people as we did our own families, if not more. That group--that opportunity--gave me a niche in a school where otherwise I might have been lost among the crowd. And in that environment, I grew. I grew from a scared new freshman to just one of the family. I became friendly and gregarious and happy. By the time I was a junior, I was completely at home with my family away from home. Mik, our fearless drill team advisor and teacher, saw leadership potential in me, and encouraged me to audition for a position as capitan. Nervous as I was, I really did want to lead there, and I felt I had something to offer our team. Her encouragement was exactly what I needed. My junior year I became Parade Captain, and my senior year, I was Co-Captain of the whole drill team (a 36 member group). I absolutely loved it. I loved everything about the drill team (or dance team, as it became known my junior year), and I still count my experiences there as the most valuable and most memorable of my high school years. And because Mik nurtured a leader in me that I didn't recognize in myself, she offered me an opportunity to help build and maintain the kind of family and community that I had been fortunate enough to find when I first set foot on that campus. That leadership experience certainly helped lead me to the path I am on now, where I can say with confidence that I have helped build and maintain an enviroment in my school and department that is welcoming and nurturing to our new teachers--new family members--who step foot on our campus.

Honorable Mention:
Mrs. Maria Olivas
Okay--Maria wasn't MY teacher. She has, however, been the 1st grade teacher to each of my three children. All three of my kids are very different, unique individuals with very different learning styles. Those of us who are teachers know that we have different teaching styles as well, and though we try to reach all of the learning styles of our kids, we do so with varying degrees of success. Maria, however, was equally adept at reaching all of the kids in the ways best suited to their needs. And though their personalities are as different as night and day, Maria loved them all. She didn't compare them; she didn't assume that what would work for one would work for them all. She took Brianna, Nicholas, and Danielle as they were--who they were--and loved them, taught them, and nurtured them. She set the bar for the kinds of educational experiences I hope my kids will encounter throughout the rest of their schooling. My kids grew by leaps and bounds in her class, and still talk about her as one of their all time favorites--all three of them! I love her dearly for it, and I am glad to count her as one of my friends to this day.

Amazing thing about gratitude....whether or not my mentors stop by and read this blog, I believe I will have gotten more out of writing this than they might in reading it. I am truly blessed.


  1. You really are lucky to have been surrounded by such an esteemed and caring group on teachers and individuals. It's therapeutic to look back and see the efforts that others made on our behalf.

  2. What a wonderful tribute to the teachers that helped shape your life! I went to college to be a HS English Teacher (where will the similarities end?!) But somehow fell into Hospitality. I often think of finding out how many classes I would need to get my certification. I've always thought, for those that have the passion for it, that it must be such a wonderful job.

    I'm sure you must get a few of those appreciation letters as well!

  3. What a beautiful paean to all of these great people.

    It's also a great thing to ask your students to recognize the impact teachers, mentors, coaches, guides have on our lives.

    I might steal that and use it for my Comp class if that's okay?


  4. I have several teachers to thank this year too!!! I know they would be surprised how they touched my children's lives this year.

    I try to have my students write notes too!

  5. Most kids would be lucky to have one inspiring teacher; you were certainly blessed to have FIVE! (Love the assignment, too.)

  6. I will never forget my favorite teachers.

  7. That's great to have had so many teachers like that. I wasn't, ah, the most focused kid in school, so I was lucky to have had a few teachers like that and they definitely deserve thanks.

  8. Gasp! Mrs. Olivas? She was my teacher too! 1st grade at Garfield? Awesome teacher.