The Power of Formative Teachers

Last summer, my son had been accepted part-time into a local Catholic PreK program which has a stellar reputation. However, I had given up his part-time slot in favor for the full-day, state-wide PreK curriculum found in another program. And, I was second-guessing myself, worried he was unprepared to be away from me for a full day. When he saw me at the end of the first day of classes this year, he burst into tears and threw himself into my arms. I felt like the worst mother in the world, thrusting him into school too early… too soon.

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At the outset of the year, I second guessed everything. I wondered whether or not I had done the right thing, forcing him to go day after day. I balked at the concept of “Family Activities” (aka “homework”), insisting that as one of the oldest in his class at the tender age of five, his primary method of learning was (and still remains) play based, rather than work based. I struggled with the 0800 drop-off time, and found myself grateful for the fifteen minute leeway so he would not be tardy – especially as morning sickness and pregnancy exhaustion kicked my butt. I analyzed, and sometimes overanalyzed, his progress, worried he would feel too pushed, or his perfectionist tendencies would find him shrinking into a downward spiral of self-doubt.

Yet, as the year wore on, I noticed my son was not shrinking; rather, he was growing. He was making friends, he was receiving good reports from his teachers, and he was enthusiastic about going to school. He found a routine, and began to identify his individual strengths. In fact, one classroom project had the children describe themselves, and he accurately identified the following adjectives: handsome, kind, super, helpful, brave, smart.

He transformed from a boy who abhorred picking up any writing or coloring utensil, into one who not only drew our chaplain a picture during Mass this past weekend, but also addressed it in legible letters. He went from not identifying a single letter – or, rather, pretending he didn’t know letters he had known days prior – to trying to patiently teach his little sister letters he wrote himself on our chalkboard. He showcased not just how he could count to 20, but extended that to 100 both forward and backward, and also writing numbers 1-20. He began asking more insightful questions about everything – from faith (which is not touched on in school), to science, to math related topics.

And, more importantly to this mama, he grew in confidence and his self-esteem blossomed.

His last days of class are this week, and I find myself looking back on this past year. It feels as though it was just last month I was racked with guilt and doubt over having made the correct choice. Yet, so much has happened in the span of time from this past fall to this week. As I survey a year in review of sorts, I find myself crediting not just my son with the growth he has exhibited, but also his teachers.

He has had some phenomenal teachers this year, who have not only made learning fun, but also encouraged him and embraced his personality. Perhaps most importantly, as they have loved the students in their classroom, these teachers imparted their own love of learning. Their enthusiasm for learning – and, for teaching – has helped my son recognize the value of hard work, and has provided the spark that has lit the candle on his internal motivation and drive. It was a flame I knew was inside my son, but one which I failed numerous times prior to this year to light. 

At the beginning of the year, I had to hold back my own tears as I put a brave face on, assuring my son he would be okay. Now, at the close of this year, I find myself holding back tears, ready to wipe his away and reassure him it is normal for him to be sad and to miss his teachers, his school, and because we are moving next month, his friends. 

I find myself plagued by another worry – that as he grows older, he will experience difficulties and struggles between his personality and that of other teachers, who will want to conform him and mold him into their version of the “perfect kid,” rather than embracing the young man who will stand in front of them, bright-eyed and eager – dare I say thirsty – to soak up the knowledge they have to impart. 

My son’s personality is similar to mine, and while I wanted nothing more than to please my teachers and be the perfect student, I was exceptionally strong-willed, and didn’t hesitate to call my teachers out if I sensed some (real or imaginary) slight or injustice had occurred. And, I worry my son will experience similar struggles I faced, as many teachers did not encourage my strong-will and commitment to self-advocacy… or advocacy of others, even when the advocacy is worded politely and with respect. I worry my son will find himself in similar shoes as mine, trying to maintain a sense of purpose, direction, and more importantly, motivation to perform, while balancing respect to authority for the teachers placed at the front of the classroom.

During my years as a paid social worker, I once heard a trainer say, “All little kids love school. If they have lost that love, there is something deeper going on, and we must dig into our kids’ lives to find out what it is that extinguished that love.” Perhaps it is a teacher-student personality clash, perhaps it is a child-child personality clash, or perhaps there is something going on in the child’s personal life. 

In any case, as I look at my son’s school year, and think of all the children who bounced into and out of class on a daily basis, I am filled with hope for their futures. They are just beginning their journey in school, and this year has been an amazingly insightful year, full of acceptance and support by the teachers in their classroom.

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As this year comes to a close, I find myself so grateful – grateful for the experience of PreK for my son. Grateful that, on advice of a sage friend, I followed my gut instinct and enrolled him in the full-day program rather than the part-time program. I am grateful that God placed such wonderful teachers into my son’s life, and I pray that their influence this year only continues to help build my son up as he looks back fondly on this formative year of school.

Finally, I am grateful for my own teachers during my formative years – Ms. S, Ms. T, Sister Mary A, Ms. C, Ms. T, Ms. H, Ms. D, and Ms. R. Good or bad, each year has a distinct memory of each teacher. Some years, I had more than one teacher, and ultimately, the personalities all balanced each other out. I struggled with some, I flourished with others, and every single one of them had a hand in making me the woman and mother I am today.

And, I am so eager to see how my son’s experiences in school help to (hopefully positively) shape and mold him into the man he will become. I know for a fact that, through their tireless devotion to a field of work I truly feel God called them, his two PreK teachers have begun the process of helping him thrive and succeed in school. 

For that, I can’t ever express enough gratitude.

How about you, dear reader – is there a teacher who impacted you more than others in your formative years? What is a memory which sticks out most about your school adventures? 

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

4 thoughts on “The Power of Formative Teachers

  1. Lovely post Anni! You and Chris had given Michael all the tools he needed to excel, and I know as time goes forward, he will be able to handle both his successes and his challenges. He is a wonderful, special, sweet boy!

  2. Good news. Sounds like you’ve found good teachers. And agreed: kids, humans in general I think, love to learn. How we learn is as varied as we are.

    I suspect the trick is getting through, or past, school without shaming or otherwise forcing it out of us. It’s nice, reading about something that ‘went right.’

    1. We had amazing teachers this year!

      And, I agree – the trick is avoiding the shame that can come with schooling (between peer pressure, academic pressure, family pressure, and more)!

      Thanks for stopping in and leaving a note!

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