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An Ode to a Teacher

If you live in Ontario, you still have a few days left to submit a nomination to the Premier’s Teaching Awards for Excellence. Just being nominated means the world for a hard-working teacher!

Below is my nomination and a public shout-out to a special teacher in our daughter’s life. Please feel free to use my comments section to share your thoughts or memories of teachers that have made an impact in your life or the lives of your children.

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They’re rare. But if you’re lucky, your child’s school has one. That teacher who despite decades of experience still bounds down the hall with a sparkle in her eye. That teacher who young students rush up to and can’t help but throw their arms around her. That teacher who arrives home, prepares dinner and cares for her own children before returning yet again to yours with extra hours of tireless preparation in the evening. That is the teacher that students remember. And that is the teacher that parents are grateful for.

It is this quiet grace that I hope you might acknowledge — the teacher who demands nothing more than her own satisfaction for a job well done, that simply does her job so well and with so much joy that the extra hours, the intelligent learning strategies, and the intense commitment to each and every child can be taken for granted. This teacher is Ms. Stefanie Young, elementary school teacher at [school name].

I am but one parent who is grateful to her and to her contribution to my child’s love of learning and self-esteem. And as such, I will share with you our story.

Our daughter Stella is now seven years old and in grade two. Since a very young age, she has been remarkably articulate and inquisitive. She can, however, be on the tad eccentric side. For example, she was so taken with the character mascots for the Olympics that she refused to wear any other shirt than an Olympic shirt for close to an entire year! As parents, we all have high hopes for our children and want to see them reach their potential, but I found myself deeply disappointed after her first year at school. She was bored, uninspired and had not been welcomed into her peer group. Although I am a working parent, I came into the classroom as a volunteer every two weeks, so I witnessed this first-hand. I considered and consulted with a number of alternative and private schools. It was of utmost importance to me that my daughter, who was so naturally passionate about learning, did not lose this passion – and especially at such an early age.

Then our family life took an interesting turn. My husband was accepted for a one-year work contract to Australia and we were to depart at the end of January. Since our daughter would only be attending a Canadian school for half a year, I chose not to change schools and instead stick with the familiar to make our upcoming exchange as comfortable as possible for our daughter.

The choice to stay at [school name] was definitely the right one. Stella had Ms. Young as her teacher. Her father and I noted the difference in her attitude towards school. She no longer complained about going and instead went excitedly to the bus stop. She also came home overflowing with stories of learning and her day. And, what was most gratifying for us, she spoke of new friends and the activities they did together. We thought perhaps it might have been a developmental thing for Stella, but we soon realized that it was her teacher that had cultivated this positive environment for our child.

How did she do this? I don’t know all of the countless ways she must have done this, but I do know that:

  • The work that came home was clearly integrating and linking her specific interests to the learning lessons.
  • Stella, who has always preferred to play with the toys in the class traditionally coveted by the boys such as dinosaurs and blocks, was encouraged and welcomed into the boys’ circle of play where before she had been shunned.
  • Stella developed a number of close friendships with the boys in her class and ultimately I was able to extend this beyond the classroom through notes facilitated by Ms. Young to book playdates outside of school.
  • Whatever unusual things (such as plastic insect replicas or volcanic stone from family a trip) Stella chose to bring to school to share with the class were celebrated and shared, rather than ignored.

Before embarking on our overseas trip, my husband and I had some questions about how to transition Stella from her current Canadian senior kindergarten class, to a class in Australia, and then back to what would be a Canadian grade one class. We were not sure if we should enroll Stella into kindergarten or grade one in Australia and what curriculum gaps might exist between what was taught in Canada and what was taught in Australia. We met with Ms. Young and raised these concerns.

We were astounded by her helpful response. She went through the entire Canadian curriculum for both years and the entire Australian curriculum (which we had a copy of) and compared the two. She returned a copy with highlighted areas in the curriculum where there might be gaps and that as parents we could work on independently at home, as well as a recommendation that we enroll Stella into grade one in Australia. This would ultimately mean that Stella would complete an entire grade one year in Australia and return back to Canada to a half a year of grade one again. In doing so, she could reconnect with her Canadian peers socially without the academic pressures of trying to catch up on learning. This made excellent sense to us since it was her social skills not her academic skills that we were most concerned about as parents. Ms. Young had a strong understanding of Stella’s social and academic skills and understood that if there were going to be challenges, they were going to be social. I can only imagine how much time Ms. Young must have spent to provide us with such detailed and well-researched advice.

Before leaving on our adventure, I shared my contact information and email with Ms. Young. To my delight, I received emails from Ms. Young checking in on how Stella was doing. (From the time stamps on the emails, I knew she was doing this during her own personal time.) Further, she sent me a package that included a photo of Stella’s Canadian class and suggested that we do a letter exchange between her Canadian class and her Australian class.

I brought Ms. Young’s letter into Stella’s Australian teacher as well as the photos. Both the teacher and students were fascinated because none of the children in Stella’s class had travelled to North America before and also because Australian children all wear uniforms to school so they found the clothes worn by the Canadian kids in the school picture really interesting.

I returned the favour to Ms. Young and sent a letter explaining what we had done on our family school holiday to the Cape Tribulation rain forest and the Great Barrier Reef. I also included some photos and postcards. Ms. Young took this material and laminated the letter and photos into a book that she read to Stella’s Canadian peers and then left in the classroom for the children to look at in more detail during free time. In doing so, Ms. Young created both a fantastic learning opportunity about the flora, fauna and geography of Australia but also kept Stella’s presence in the minds of her peers so that when she returned, they would not have forgotten her and thus make her social transition easier. We continued the package exchange during the year, with Ms. Young sending a package of Canadian pencils and stickers for Stella’s entire Australian class. Stella’s classmates were so thrilled that many parents told me that their children were still cherishing their stickers and pencils even weeks later. Ultimately, this kind of package exchange enabled a learning experience not just for Stella — the individual child — but for two entire classrooms in opposite ends of the world! (And she did all of this on her own time and with her own money for packaging and Canadian souvenirs.)

Upon our return to Canada, the subtle — but very clever — work of Ms. Young was clearly successful. Stella’s peers remembered her and excitedly spoke of the animals she had seen and welcomed her back into the snowy winter of Canada, which they knew she hadn’t seen for more than a year.

We feel fortunate that our child is healthy and does not have to face the very real challenges of a learning, physical or vast cultural difference or obstacle. But she is still an individual child with individual needs and Ms. Young recognizes this for each and every child that crosses her path. And for that, I think she is exceptional. It is a rare teacher that can take the common day-to-day tasks of a job and consistently apply excellence.

We are very grateful to Ms. Young. She had faith in our child and her unique traits and we in turn have faith that Stella feels a sense of strong belonging to [school name] as a result. Ms. Young demonstrates holistic learning in the true sense and is an example of all that is right and wonderful about our Canadian public school systems.

Do you have a teacher like this when you were growing up? I bet you still remember them fondly! How about your child … do they have a favourite teacher that gets them excited about learning?

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Comments

  1. I was just reading this article at lunch today (God forbid I leave my house):
    http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/201001/good-teaching

    Teach For America has been measuring what makes an effective teacher – see if any of this sounds like your Ms. Young:
    “great teachers tended to set big goals for their students. They were also perpetually looking for ways to improve their effectiveness.”…
    “Superstar teachers had four other tendencies in common: they avidly recruited students and their families into the process; they maintained focus, ensuring that everything they did contributed to student learning; they planned exhaustively and purposefully—for the next day or the year ahead—by working backward from the desired outcome; and they worked relentlessly, refusing to surrender to the combined menaces of poverty, bureaucracy, and budgetary shortfalls.”

  2. Julie that is a wonderful account you’ve written. Thanks so much for sharing. Ms. Young seems like an incredible teacher, but also an incredible person.

  3. You were so blessed to have been in her class! I had no idea about all she had done while you guys were away…
    K

  4. What a lovely teacher. I loved this story. We have had ups and downs so far in our daughters’ school years, and it’s so true that the teacher makes or breaks the year for a child.

  5. Ken – oh, you mean we get lunch breaks? We must do coffee in Kanata even though it will mean leaving the house! The words “refusing to surrender” are so powerful and bang-on from the article you reference.

    Ads – Yes, you’re right. I think the two go hand-in-hand.

    Kathryn – Blessings come in all forms, don’t they!

    Finola – Doesn’t just break your heart when school lets your child down? I hope your daughter gets more ups than downs.

  6. Thanks seems so inadequate. You’ve reinforced my vocation and brought tears to my eyes. Just like the day Stella left and I knew I couldn’t cry till after the buses were gone. I wish Stella could come back – and I look for the day little brother comes. Truly – thank you.

  7. Stefanie – my pleasure entirely. I’ll keep my fingers crossed that Max will get as lucky as Stella!

  8. Hold up..do you mean to say…I can have coffee with Julie…

    I’ll hit you up on facebook when my employer allows me to untether for a few minutes.

  9. It doesn’t surprise me at all that Stefanie does things like this. She does more for her family than anyone I have every met as well. She has truly taken after her father who put every person before himself.

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