By Mandy Manning, 2018 Washington State Teacher of the Year
A few years back, I received a thank you email from a former student whom I’d taught my first year teaching in Spearman, TX.. She wrote about her experiences in my classroom, explaining that at the beginning of the school year, in 2001, she was not actually one of my students, but her friends were. She noticed how interested I was in those kids and how welcome and accepted I made them feel. She wanted to have that relationship with me as well so she joined her friends to eat lunch in my classroom and by second semester, she was enrolled in my drama class. It was funny, because I didn’t recall that she wasn’t my student that entire year. In my memory she’d been with me from the first day.
What I didn’t know at the time, but what she shared with me in her email, was that her father was detached and distant and her mother had left the family. She felt alone. She said I made her feel accepted and gave her guidance without judgement and encouraged her to be herself. She even remembered that I called her “an old soul,” because of her style and sense of humor. In her note, she said, “I remember seeing you driving home in your little Hyundai one day and thinking, ‘I wonder if she thinks of us when she goes home?’ Of course, the answer was yes. You listened to the woes of downtrodden teens, and always found a way to make us laugh and smile and learn how to enjoy each other in class. Most of all, you made me proud of who I was when no one else could.” She said while she didn’t recognize it then, she realizes now that she needed that type of relationship with an adult in her life.
The point of all of this is that those small interactions I had with this student meant so much to her. They shaped how she interacted with her peers and how she felt about herself. She carried those conversations into a happy and successful adulthood. For me, I was simply getting to know my students. But for her, every conversation was profound and had a deep impact on her life. So much so that she remembered specific phrases I used and the make of my car. When she sent me this note, I had already been teaching for 16 years, but it was in that moment that I realized how much of an impact I can have on an individual. Kids listen to what we say. =. They take to heart the messages we send and the way we make them feel. Being interested in students as both learners and as humans, and working to make connections can change their trajectory. After getting that note, I began to pay more attention to the conversations I have with my students. A single phrase can change their worlds.
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