When I first started teaching high school, my elder colleagues pulled me aside often — there was so much to mentor me about. I was an eager student. Until the day they told me, “Erika, if you reach just one student, be proud and consider your teaching a success.” One? I had 160 and I aspired to be powerful and effective for each and every one.
And then I learned. It’s really, really hard to be a good teacher. But still, I aspired.
Last week while meeting at NASA about STEM teachers, I had the extreme pleasure of meeting several astronauts. The story goes that they agreed to join us at dinner once they knew we were teachers. I like to imagine that as we said to ourselves, “Wow, real live astronauts?” they were saying, “Wow, real live teachers!”
I spoke to each and every one of the astronauts at dinner, initially fascinated to learn the source of bravery that inspired someone to blast into space, and then later to hear their stories of the teachers who changed their lives. Each of them had one teacher who was instrumental in their life and ultimately their work at NASA: the teacher who inspired high school graduation (first in the family), another who helped with the college scholarship process, another who said shoot for NASA, you can do it.
Teachers are the common denominator in all these stories; teachers who saw what the future astronauts could not, or dared not, see in themselves. By seeing our potential, teachers help us reach for worlds we may see as a possibility only for others.
In time, the astronauts told each of their special teachers about the impact he or she had and, with typical teacher humility, all three were completely shocked. Sure, they remembered their students, but they had no recollection that they had done anything extraordinary beyond what teachers do every day — care, sweat, fret, and inspire away for every single child in front of them.
Classic teacher: so busy doing and caring and hoping and grading that the beauty and impact of what we do eludes us. We, too, need a mirror to see what we cannot, or dare not, see in ourselves. We shape lives, and futures, as a matter of course, every day. Being truly significant in the life of one? Darn impactful, after all.
And yet during this week of Teacher Appreciation, I feel a bit heavy-hearted with the strife some teachers, such as our colleagues in Detroit, are facing. In this week of gratitude and appreciation for teachers, too many fight for better work conditions and better pay. I hope, Detroit, you surround yourself with memories that remind you of how much we need you –– how much you matter. Your former students, maybe even as far away as in space, are thinking of you and giving thanks.
And to all teachers, we at Teaching Channel applaud you for the long hard days of inspiring the genius in each student. And also having the energy to provide that same inspiration on Teaching Channel for each other. We strive to shine the light for teachers just as you do for students.
Erika Nielsen Andrew has been a high school teacher, administrator, coach, researcher, facilitator, network leader, and designer of professional learning in the Bay Area for 27 years before she joined Teaching Channel as our Chief Academic Officer. Follow Erika on Twitter: @thenewready or email her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.