“A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.”
About once a year, I send my high school teacher, Ms. Rowe, a Facebook message to remind her how much she has influenced me. Even though I only spent one year in her classroom and haven’t seen her in nearly a decade, Ms. Rowe’s impact grows even stronger with each passing year. And so, I continue to send her sappy annual messages, and suspect that I always will.
This Teacher Appreciation Week, I encourage you to reach out to the Ms. Rowes in your life. I also encourage you try to think about more than just the assignments or funny stories that you recall from your time with them. Think about how they made you feel, and about how they still shape who you are and the decisions you make. Think about the times when you have thought of them, and even been changed by them, many years after you left their classrooms. Then, tell them about those times.
Below is a story about some of mine.
When I was 22, I taught in a small village in Thailand. During my free periods, a group of students would often sit in my classroom and ask me to play American music and tell them about my friends and family. Initially, they frustrated me. Didn’t they know that this was my only time to grade and lesson plan?
Then, it hit me: I had been one of these students.
During my senior year of high school, I sat with Ms. Rowe every single day during her free period. It was that time with her—when we discussed everything from challenges I was facing at home to issues only she seemed willing to discuss with students, such as race and privilege—that got me through each day. On the very rare occasions that she wasn’t in school or available to sit with me, I was lost. I would literally wander the halls aimlessly, unable to find another adult willing to just be with me in the way that Ms. Rowe was.
I had always known that Ms. Rowe was special, but after becoming a teacher myself, my appreciation for her teaching, patience and compassion burst open. Not only had she been there for me as a student, but now she was also there for me in my Thai classroom, nudging me to put down my lesson plans and just be with these kids.
I wish I could say that I followed in Ms. Rowe’s footsteps and made these students feel welcomed each and every day, giving them my time and attention and a space to just be. But I didn’t. The truth is that the enormity of being a teacher, a mentor and a friend was overwhelming. I realized the effort and heart behind what seemed to come so naturally to Ms. Rowe.
It is no doubt because of Ms. Rowe that I decided to explore teaching, and it is no doubt because of her—and the high bar she set—that I ultimately had to admit that I wasn’t cut out for it. This is what the best teachers do: they inspire us and they show us who we are (and who we aren’t) long after we have the pleasure of seeing them every day.
It’s not easy to be a teacher like Ms. Rowe. It takes a special dedication, passion and skill to do what she did (and does) for me and so many others—both in and out of class, while she is with us both physically and in spirit, nudging us to take risks, try a little harder and admit our weaknesses.
I hope that everyone has a Ms. Rowe. I hope that everyone uses this week to reflect on their Ms. Rowe and show their thanks. Above all, I hope that the Ms. Rowes of the world realize and appreciate their transformative and lingering influence, this week and always.