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Celebrating Everyday Teacher Heroes

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One of the things I often hear myself repeating when I talk about teaching is, "People don't know."

And it's true. People don't know the challenges teachers face each day. People don't know the enormous amount of work it takes to be an effective teacher. And people don't know the sacrifices teachers make to do that work.

Teachers often go far out of their way to help their students achieve and succeed in the world. These efforts can make all the difference to a child.

As the holiday season approaches and we scramble to put final grades in the system, let’s take a moment to celebrate 12 teachers (and the millions more like them) who do everything they can for their students, every day. These teachers may seem like superheroes—but they’re far from the exception. They are all colleagues and other educators I've met during the normal course of my work.

Hannah, a high school teacher in a low-income, urban school district, noticed a student squinting while playing basketball in gym. The student and his family, who were undocumented, could not afford an eye examination or contact lenses. With the parents' and school's permission, Hannah arranged a doctor's appointment for her student and had the bill sent to her.

Jenny, who teaches in a high school near Oakland, Calif., had a student who frequently wrote letters to his father in prison. Every chance the student got, he would send a letter to his father. Jenny provided the student with stamps and envelopes. One day, the student wrote an essay about his father that earned an A, so Jenny photocopied the essay and sent it to the student's father in jail.

A few weeks later, a letter came to the school addressed to Jenny. When she saw it, she assumed it was for the student and handed it to him. But after opening the letter, the student said, "This letter is for you." The student's dad had written to thank Jenny and express how much reading his child's essay meant to him. He talked about how hard it was for him to be away from his children and how it made him happy to know that they were doing well in his absence. The student was thrilled that his dad was proud of him—and that motivation helped him to continue to do well in school.

Michelle, a high school teacher, went to the Internal Revenue Service with a student's family to help them fight an erroneous tax bill. The family did not speak English, but with Michelle’s help and the student working as an interpreter, the mistake was corrected.

Courtney teaches in a suburban district in Pennsylvania. When she discovered that one student’s family was in dire need at Christmas time, Courtney anonymously purchased gifts, clothes, and bicycles for the student and her younger sister.

Allie, a teacher in Las Vegas, holds trainings each month for the parents of her kindergarten students so that they can help their children learn better at home. Parents and students come to school at 7 a.m., before school starts, to learn strategies for teaching the alphabet, sounds, sight words, and math. Allie prepares games ahead of time and makes packets of materials that parents can take home. Allie’s had a great deal of success with these parent trainings. The families love coming to school with their children, and she can tell that the parents are using the strategies at home.

• One of Brian's elementary school students had severe disabilities, including a communication disorder. The family needed help getting the student on the bus each morning so the mother would be on time for her job. So Brian went to the bus stop every morning for one week and actually rode the school bus with the student. The next week, Brian went to the bus stop and helped the student get comfortable on the bus. Then he followed the bus with his car so he would be there to help the student get off the bus when it arrived at school.

• When Logan learned that one of her students had been hospitalized for sickle cell anemia, she immediately told the school guidance counselor. That counselor went to visit the student in her hospital room, where she found the student curled in a ball—alone, scared, and in pain. The student's mother had other children in elementary school and a baby at home, so she was unable to visit her sick child at that moment.

So the guidance counselor stayed with the student for hours. When Logan learned that it was also the student's birthday, she and a team of teachers bought birthday presents for the sick child, and the counselor even bought a turkey and fixings for the family so that they could enjoy Thanksgiving.

Kara taught at an all-girl middle school in a tough neighborhood in Boston. For many years she took her students trick-or-treating, even dressing up herself. She also took 30 girls on a field trip to see The New Kids on the Block, which was the first concert for almost all of them.

• In her second year of teaching, Megan encountered a female student who was receiving mixed messages about the power of education. The student’s family often told her that education was only important so long as it was convenient for the family and fit in with their daily routines. As a result, this student missed school frequently.

This student was bright but uncertain of her talents due to a lack of self-confidence. Megan knew what the student needed: "She needed to show up to school. She needed someone to fight for her. She needed affirmation that what she believed about hard work and the world in which she lived was true." So, with the permission of her school, Megan became the student's ride to school. Every day that the student woke up and found she could not get to school due to circumstances outside of her control, Megan showed up to get her. The student started attending school more, and Megan was able to affirm for the student for the power and importance of education.

Kelly, a teacher at a low-income, urban high school, has driven students to college interviews at the University of Massachusetts and the University of New Hampshire. She's even paid students’ college application fees.

Erin found funding for $2,000 worth of yoga mats and other supplies so that her stressed-out students could learn mindfulness and relaxation techniques.

Rosa, a high school teacher, once paid for a student to take an after-school SAT prep program. That very grateful student now works as a teacher at Rosa’s school.

Whether reaching into their own wallets, (literally) going the extra mile, or making sure to give a student the extra attention she or he needs, there are so many ways that educators show students they care.

As we go into the New Year, let’s take time from our busy schedules to reflect on all the wonderful things teachers do for their students. Happy holidays to teachers, administrators, and paraprofessionals, and thanks for all you do for our nation’s students!

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