Dear Teacher: You. Make. A. Difference.

When Appreciation is in a Rearview Mirror

As Teacher Appreciation Week approaches, I have been thinking a lot about small moments, the ones that seem insignificant to us, but have far-reaching impact on others. As you approach the victory lap of this school year, I’m not sure if the needed words will be said. I hope that students and parents, colleagues, and administrators will be eager to share all of the ways your words, your generosity, your spirit have shaped and defined those you work with. Just in case they forget to remember what your work has meant, let these thoughts be my admiration, my applause.

You. Make. A. Difference.

There’s no disputing what your presence means to your students. And you know this is true because they remind you if you already wore that shirt this week, because they notice exactly how many cups of coffee you drink each day, because they think they’ve run into a celebrity when they see you in a baseball cap at the grocery store. Your presence is part of their purpose. Each day that you challenge, question, nurture, or refuse to give up on them is a moment they tuck away, often without realizing it, contributes to the person they are becoming.

Contributions can be funny, though; they can blind us to what’s really important. We may think relevance will leave its mark in that amazing project we designed, when really it was the day we said, “Did you get your hair cut this weekend?” We may think we’re dressing relevance in an unassuming moment of kindness: “I loved you in the school play last night” when really it was the story you told about your own child they never forgot.

In short, what we think makes the difference often doesn’t and what we least expect, creates a lasting impression. Yet, it isn’t until long after they’ve left our classrooms that time and experience cast those times anew and they fathom your impact. We can believe this because we’ve all had those teachers, in and out of classrooms, who have given us perspective when we most needed it and least knew how much. By the time we realized it, the day to appreciate or thank was already in the rearview mirror.

But last year I decided to send a letter, one that I knew would probably never be read, to an unlikely teacher: Oprah Winfrey. Here’s a portion of what I wrote.

Dear Oprah,

17 years ago, you fell in love with a little story called The Bridges of Madison County and threw my entire hometown into a frenzied excitement when you wanted to do a live show in Winterset, Iowa with Robert Waller, celebrating his book. I was a senior in high school and was one of the lucky [students] chosen to participate in the media coverage and interviews after the show.

After the show we stood with all the adults backstage: they with their certainty and fancy equipment, Paul and I with our youthful naïveté and the 35mm camera from the storage closet in our journalism room. We stood back and waited for instructions. Quickly a young staffer shouted: “Everyone will get two questions. That’s it. We’ll start with the biggest markets and move to the smallest. When time is up, Ms. Winfrey will have to leave and you may not all get to ask your questions.” He looked right at us and we looked at each other. There were so many people, I could barely see you, but then I heard your voice, “No, no, no. Are those kids back there? Now all of you just stop for a second. We were all in their shoes once. We all started out somewhere. We will wait and I will answer their questions.” Were you talking about us? Was it possible that you understood how important just asking the question was to a teenager?

I have no idea what questions we asked. I should have written them down. I barely remember actually meeting you because I was so overwhelmed with this sense of empowerment, of purpose, of potential. Even today, the memory is frayed at the edges, but your words linger with poignancy. Whether you meant to or not, that afternoon you gave me a feeling of worth; you offered some understanding of what it means to be caught between childhood and adulthood, standing at the back of the line, waiting my turn.

I’m a teacher now and I often worry that my words won’t be enough, but then I’ll remember yours.

Even though I knew the letter would never get to her, I was just as certain this was one of those moments that meant everything to me and was probably completely innocuous to her. So, during this week of appreciation, may your inboxes be flooded with the unsent messages of all those days where your slightest move made an enduring impression.

Sarah Brown Wessling is a high school English teacher in Johnston, Iowa. She is the 2010 National Teacher of the Year and is the Teacher Laureate for Teaching Channel. Connect with Sarah on Twitter – @SarahWessling.

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