In our current educational climate, there is much to grieve.
At the national level we’ve been barraged with bad news: declining academic test scores related to pandemic “learning loss,” school shootings that continue to devastate our country, student mental health concerns, the recent influx of book challenges and all-out bans, and the constant, nagging pushback against “critical race theory” curriculum.
But as Flannery O’Connor wrote, “Hope is lighter than despair.” And nobody realizes this more than an educator.
As a product of the District 65 schools, I encountered many impactful teachers who chose hope, day after day.
Eileen Ralfes, my first grade teacher, welcomed me to a new school with an arm wrapped around my shoulders. I remember the first time I met her, through the open window of her then classroom at Kingsley Elementary School. Ms. Ralfes taught me to read that year. All of a sudden, I flipped open a book, and voila, I understood the story. Fresh magic!
My fifth grade teacher, Linda Johnson, ignited curiosity and creativity. We created underwater seascapes in her classroom, complete with coral reefs and exotic fish made from paper, and she allowed us plenty of choice with our book reports.
Denia Hester, Kinglsey school librarian, had the most melodic and soothing reading voice. I vividly recall her intonation, invitingly slow and measured, as we all sat criss-cross applesauce, hands to ourselves, listening with wide eyes.
Ruth Felton, my middle school art teacher, made me believe in my artistic ability. Her room was a messy haven, a place to escape. She relished clutter and used to say that neatness and order were simply limitations of the mind.
And Dan Engh, my sixth grade social studies teacher – before I entered his classroom, I did not understand that ancient history could be fascinating.
Mr. Engh made ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia accessible and relevant. There is much I recollect from his class that I, as a 30-something woman, have no business being able to recall from sixth grade. I can still visualize charts that explained in detail irrigation systems and pottery and writing.
My brain lit up in a way it never had before, neural passageways glowing, electrified by new knowledge.
Reflecting on my personal education, I wondered: What makes us remember a teacher? How do these individuals leave their mark? I’ve asked this wonderful community to chime in and respond to this question. Who are the teachers that left an imprint on you, and how does this exactly happen?
Dana Stamos, a 2005 Willard School graduate, remembers her second grade teacher Lisa Harries because “she believed in me and made me feel special and cared for.”
When Stamos was young she loved to write and filled entire notebooks with creative stories. Well, Ms. Harries noticed. “She saw my love for writing and one day asked if I’d like to write a play for a showcase for the entire second grade.”
Stamos authored her own version of Three Little Pigs in a rhyming style reminiscent of Dr. Seuss. The play was then produced and performed by second graders.
“At 8 years old, I felt like a star!” remarked Stamos. “Ms. Harries saw my creativity and potential and asked me to run with it. She helped me to feel confident and capable, which meant the world to my young and impressionable self.”
Now Stamos teaches second grade at Chicago Public Schools, a career and position inspired by Ms. Harries.
Stamos says that every day she tries to emulate her favorite teacher’s warmth, bright energy and enthusiasm.
“Teachers really can change our lives, and I am so grateful Ms. Harries was a part of mine.”
Carl Rogers, current paraprofessional at ETHS and a graduate student, will always remember his sixth grade science teacher, Kathleen Roberson. “Mrs. Roberson broke down the material step by step,” he explained, allowing him to better process challenging content.
“School was hard for me, no matter what,” stated Rogers. “If teachers didn’t take time to break down their lessons, they were not super meaningful to me.”
Roberson did this. Not only during the school day but also after school. Rogers admitted as a sixth grader being shocked to hear Roberson had her own family. When did she see them? he wondered.
“She literally met me halfway on everything,” he commented, remembering their agreement. “If I would type this, she would type that. If I did this part of the project, she would do the other half.” That kind of intense support makes an impact.
Jamie Noll, 1995 Lincoln School graduate, will always remember her first grade teacher Lois Soglin. “Ms. Soglin made me feel safe, no matter what, but also challenged me. Whether we were learning to write or churning butter in a jar on the rug.”
Noll still remembers one day in first grade when she lost track of her story written during classroom creative writing time. Noll was devastated, convinced she could never write it as well again.
Ms. Soglin sat with her, helping to recall each part, piece by piece, coaching her that it wasn’t going to be the same story exactly, but that was OK! Perhaps it could be even better.
“What a life lesson to learn at age 6!” commented Noll.
Noll also remembers being hunched in the hallway during a tornado warning with her head in her hands, just wishing for her parents. Then she heard Ms. Soglin’s calm voice, reminding the children they were all doing the right things, and instantly, she felt better.
This is the power of a great teacher; their persistent reminder that we matter. A great teacher notices our interests, believes in our talent and reassures us when we are scared. They have hope for our future.
If you can remember a teacher who chose hope, that helped guide you on your path to success, please reach out. Let us at the RoundTable know who they were and how they changed the trajectory of your life. What is it about their teaching that still lingers in your mind and refuses to leave?
If, as Flannery O’Connor says, hope truly is lighter than despair, then let us carry that forward. Let us leave behind all that does not serve us. With a lighter load, we travel further and faster.