Published Online: June 11, 2008

First Person

The Teacher Effect

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“Now, would you read that paragraph again so we can understand it this time?” My 5th grade teacher stood in front of the class with her hands on her hips as she threw these cutting words across the room. I had just read a section from the daily “out loud” and now the boy behind me was being directed to read the same paragraph again. Her words slashed through my soul and the humiliation I felt that day is as fresh and hot as if it had happened this morning.

My father had been in the Navy since I was five, so we moved from one duty station to another every two years. My life consisted of packing and unpacking boxes, hesitantly making new friends and then having to leave them all again –a cycle I found harder and harder to face each year. We had recently made such a move to this city, and I had been attending the local elementary school for just a few days. Reading had been a source of solace to me amidst all this confusion in my life, a way to escape from the constant upheaval. I was a good reader with an extensive vocabulary and I devoured books in the sanctuary of my bedroom at home.

That day was white-hot and blinding, like Florida afternoons can be, the pavement sending up waves of heat outside the classroom window. The metal desks were arranged in traditional rows, our books and papers spilling out onto the floor around our feet from the small storage space beneath each of us. We were taking turns reading out loud, each of us in our proper order based on the seating chart. I had counted ahead and found my designated paragraph, terrified that I would make a mistake. My one goal in life at that age, the misfit “new kid” forever, was to be invisible. But, like many things in life, we create the very monsters that we fear. My nervousness resulted in an overly-rapid pace when it was my turn to read. I just wanted it to be over.

When the teacher spoke those caustic words, I burned with shame. I wanted to cry, to run away, anything to stop all those eyes from staring at me. I knew they would be laughing at me in their little cliques later on the playground at recess. Today, I realize that the fault was the teacher’s, not mine. But when you’re 10 years old and have never fit in anywhere your entire life, the blame is always yours. It hides around corners just waiting to bite at your heels every painful minute of every horrible day.

What that teacher couldn’t possibly know that day was that her thoughtlessness would prompt me to set a career path to make sure no other child would face such humiliation. I became a teacher. For 15 years, I dedicated myself to the philosophy that a teacher is one of the most important people in a child’s life. Our words and our attitudes have a lasting impact on the minds and the souls of the children who are placed in our paths every day. We must treat these hearts and souls with the tender care that such a precious gift deserves.

We never know the damage that has already been done to a child when they take a seat in our classroom. We can’t take the chance that a child may already be teetering on the brink, suffering from abusive relationships or the effects of poverty. We can’t truly know what they face at home every day when they are out of our sight. Our thoughtless, painful words might be the ones that push that child over the edge. All we can do is provide a safe, warm place to be during the hours they spend with us. I know. I remember.

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