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Who Was It?

I’m willing to bet that there was, for each of us, one adult who held a powerful influence over our development and the person we eventually grew to become. I’m talking about an adult who was not assigned to us as a function of our birth. Rather, someone outside our homes; someone whose face jumps to the front of the line as we think back on our personal histories. Give yourself permission to reflect and remember.

Who was it?

It could be just about anyone, really. It could be a clergy member or a camp counselor or the police officer who had grounds to arrest you, but didn’t. Perhaps it was a scout leader, or a coach, or the mail carrier. I saw a recent news feature about a little boy who, for him, it was the garbage collector. As we stumble through our childhood, we bump into all manner of people who hold the potential of being a significant influencer. Who was it for you?

As I bet before that such an influencer exists for each of us, I’m willing to double down and bet that, for many of us, we encountered that person in school. Folks reading this may or may not be in the field of education. Regardless, they share a ridiculously obvious commonality with those that are. They, too, are the products of a system of education. All of us, or easily most of us, attended school during our childhood and adolescence. By my rough, though unscientific calculation, we each spent in excess of 925,000 minutes in school from kindergarten through twelfth grade. We’re bound to meet some pretty interesting people over that period of time! Was it a teacher? Or was it a secretary, the nurse or the custodian? I’d be thrilled if I was the influencer for a couple of kids I encountered through my career. “For me, it was my music teacher, Mr. Johnson” or “Mr. Johnson, my principal.” (One can always dream.)

There may be multiple people who fit the bill, if we are lucky enough for that to happen. But, I’m satisfied believing there is at least one for each of us. Lock that key individual into your working memory and answer the question: “What was it he or she did to impact me in such a profound way?” Did they boost your confidence? Did she make you feel important? Did he make it clear that he “saw” you and that you mattered? What was it they gave you? I don’t care what is was. All that matters is that it’s clear to you. It is that clarity about the enormity of their gift to you that will allow you to act.

The first action we all should take, having identified who that key figure was, is to reach out and to express our appreciation. Someone gave you a wonderful gift. The very least you can do is to thank them. My key influencer was a teacher. And, after fifty years of feeling guilt that I hadn't thanked him, I did. I sent him a letter. In it, I opened up and communicated my gratitude for the specific things he had done to help steer my course. I had no foreshadowing of how my expression would be received. However, his response back to me erased any apprehension or doubt.

The bulk of my readers are educators. These folks now find themselves tucked in to another school year, ready to engage a new crop of students in that mysterious and wondrous enterprise of teaching for learning. I congratulate each of them for their commitment to the future of our children and their amazing dedication to the art, and craft, of teaching. And, it is in this spirit of respect that I challenge them to embrace one additional action. Whatever it was that individual did to bolster you, to value you, to challenge you, to believe in you . . . bring that into your practice. Let that be a part of what you offer your students, knowing full well, based on your personal experience, that it will make a difference.

We must all remember in this era of mandates and standardization that education is first, and foremost, a human enterprise, not a mechanical one. It’s too easy to get distracted and caught up in the mechanics of teaching and to overlook the power of human connections.

You may never know the true impact of your humanity, but some unsuspecting student certainly will.

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