A Teacher's Impact

When my wife and I went to high school orientation for our 14-year-old, Sam, last fall, we walked with the confident gait of parents who had been around the block once or twice.

Having already had four kids graduate, we felt pretty confident that there weren’t many surprises left.

However, when we met the English teacher, he corralled us all into the room and gave a very passionate version of his syllabus and student expectations. He said this class would not concentrate so much on the grade as on the shaping of a young mind.

We sort of smiled and nodded, and left a little uneasy about exactly what he was trying to say. That guy was really different.

As the year moved on, I found there wasn't a week that went by where Sam didn't relate some story to me that had either been told to him by this teacher or that appeared on his radar because of something that teacher had mentioned to him during class one day.

I know young teenagers are very impressionable, and a lot of us recall and associate a lot of emotion with that first teacher who made a difference in our walk with education, but this guy’s impression on Sam went beyond that.

It was like a whole new thought process had been introduced to him, and he was endlessly curious about capturing it.

Sam began to see things in a different light; not just different for the sake of being different, but learning that three or four points of view can occur simultaneously without any of them being "wrong."

He opened his mind to more possibilities, and I found him giving things a chance that he previously would have just staunchly rejected.

I see him going forward now with so much more confidence, because I think he is more comfortable with himself knowing he is not required to "fall into line" every time he has an opinion or, moreover, a difference of opinion .

I know the challenges as a teacher are many, because it is hard for kids to BE different; not just appear different, but actually BE different. For whatever reasons, this teacher made the choices he did, he has come to represent some level of thinking liberty to the students, and there's been a lasting, positive impression on my son.

I am grateful for the school year this teacher spent with Sam. And while the intangible benefits were many, I can flat out list the specific improvements that were derived.

1. Sam no longer answers people he speaks to without thinking about what he is saying .

How many times a day do people say, “How are you?” and we simply return with, “Fine, thank you.”

Truth is, we are not always fine. I am not implying that we should bore everyone that asks that question with our personal health report, but the point is there is often a more accurate answer that should be considered instead of the automatic one.

I saw it more accurately portrayed when Sam was supposed to meet two friends at the movies one Saturday and one of the two didn’t show. Later that evening, that friend called and Sam asked why he hadn’t come or didn’t bother to let them know he wasn’t coming.

The kid almost ignored the question and asked about the movie he had missed. Sam hesitated and said, “I’ll tell you about the movie in a minute; why didn’t you let us know you weren’t coming?”

The kid was really squirming and finally apologized, which Sam thanked him for, but I really admired his direct and honest approach that was nothing more than sincere.

I thought about how many times have I let people off the hook who owed me an explanation, and I began to wonder if I had taken this tack years ago, perhaps far fewer people might be taking advantage of me, the understanding one, today.

2. He reserves judgment .

If Sam is presented with a set of facts and the evidence is all leaning one way to make a pretty well-founded assessment, he seeks all the information before making up his mind.

He picked up his video game remote the other day, and it was conspicuously light. He realized right away the batteries were missing. Previously, he would have hunted down his brother and accused him of taking them.

Instead, he asked his brother, who responded that he had not; Sam found out that his mom had taken them during the day to use in her portable CD player (yes she still carries one).

He asked if she was done using them and if he could have them back. She thanked him, returned them and he went on to play his game.

I was stunned. Cool, calm, deliberate and all this at 15? Incredible.

3. He now applies an economy with his words .

Sam was known to prattle on and on when telling a story. His revised manner is much more deliberate, paced and enjoyable to listen to. His stories have a beginning and an end.

I find he slips in and out of adult conversations much better, as he only speaks when he has something to contribute as opposed to the younger man’s habitual intrusion of interrupting whenever a fresh thought pops to mind.

So I look back at that August evening nine months ago when we were being told this teacher would be shaping our son’s mind. My son is now more thoughtful about the things he says, he is deliberate in his judgment, and he has a great economy with words.

Part of that is simply because he’s growing up. Some of it is because I’d like to think we pose as good examples at home. But the lion’s share, at least this year, was derived from a teacher who chose to do more than pass out books, grade tests and review chapters.

As we wrap up another school year on this fine June day, I thank all the teachers for all they do, all they tolerate, all they fill in for, and all they are willing to endure to shape young minds and the future of America.

What a great thing to do, huh?

Ron Ciancutti is the Purchasing Manager for Cleveland Metroparks. He is not on Facebook, but he can be reached at rdc@clevelandmetroparks.com.