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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Thank You, Mrs. Flynn

By Peter DeWitt — May 06, 2015 4 min read
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Like many of you, I can remember the names of most of my teachers from K-12, but I definitely remember the names of every single elementary school teacher. I realize that is a luxury. Some children get moved around so much that they may not remember all of the names of the teachers they met in one year.

It’s strange because growing up in Queensbury (NY) I assumed that all elementary, middle and high schools were on the same campus. I never realized that neighborhood schools were the norm, and that Queensbury was so unique. It’s a place where my mom still lives, as does one of my brothers.

What made Queensbury even more unique was Mrs. Flynn, my fourth grade teacher. Perhaps it’s that we are in the middle of Teacher Appreciation Week, and some friends have been writing about the topic, but Mrs. Flynn has been on my mind. I once talked with her by telephone a decade ago, and before that I had not seen or spoken to her since I was in seventh grade.

Mrs. Flynn was no bigger than many of the students in her class. Usually, we remember our teachers as being giant figures and then meet them and realize they were a bit shorter than we remembered. In the case of Mrs. Flynn, she was short, as you can see from this picture.

I often say I loved having Mrs. Flynn so much as a teacher that I had her two years in a row. Speaking in front of a crowd of teachers or leaders, they usually think that I mean Mrs. Flynn looped with her class from 4th to 5th. What I actually mean is that I was retained in 4th grade, and Mrs. Flynn was my requested teacher for the second year.

You see, my dad was diagnosed with Cancer and was spending a lot of time in Burlington Hospital (Vermont) because Glens Falls, which was the neighboring city to Queensbury, didn’t have the Cancer care they do now (which thankfully helped my sister through breast Cancer and mom through colon Cancer). As my mom went to be with my dad during those days, home was sometimes very sad. School was not a priority for me, because making it through the day was, which is kind of depressing for a fourth grader.

Mrs. Flynn helped relieve some of that stress and sadness. She, to my recollection, never yelled at us. She would turn off the lights from time to time to get us to quiet down, but she always spoke softly. Many times she would just come over and put her arm around my shoulder, or check in on me to see how I was doing. It was a kind word here and there, but I always felt like she was watching over me.

As a child who was watching his dad die of Cancer at the same time I was retained and one year older than all of the peers in the classroom, you can imagine that I was not thrilled with life. I guess that’s why I say my life mirrored Teddy Stoddard. It’s hard to focus on getting A’s at the same time so much is going on at home. It would have been easier if I excelled somewhere, but the truth is that I did not.

Before you comment that retention doesn’t work, I will tell you that I agree with you. I don’t have any concerns about my own retention now, but it took years to get over the insecurities, because the reality is that I struggled every year after that, and of you read this blog often you know I graduated fourth from last in my class.

You might also wonder why I would have such fond recollections of Mrs. Flynn, since that was one of the worst periods of my life. Truth be told, besides my mom and family being a beacon of hope, it’s because Mrs. Flynn helped set the foundation for where I would go in life many years later. She made me want to be a teacher, although I certainly did not have the grades or the expertise to achieve that goal.

My dad died when I was in fifth grade and my mom went back to get her GED when I was in sixth grade, which was his wish for her. Through the strength of my mom and siblings, slowly, day by day we all started to dig ourselves out of the despair of losing my dad. Mrs. Flynn even attended the funeral. I can’t tell you how much of a beacon of light a teacher provides to a child surrounded by so many other adults he didn’t know at the time.

Teacher Appreciation

Teachers leave an impression, good or bad, on students. It’s not about the test score or the test prep. It’s about every encouraging word. Mrs. Flynn certainly didn’t let me off the hook in class, and she held tight parameters around me, which I needed. Mrs. Flynn was fair, but firm. She was loving and yet didn’t offer me sympathy as much as she provided empathy.

Teachers need to be appreciated, but even more than that they need to be respected. I held my other teachers to the Mrs. Flynn standard and sometimes they lived up to it, and other times they did not. In a small way I wanted to pay it forward when I became a teacher.

When I finally found my way, and made it through college (with a 3.86 I might add!) I wanted very much to be a fourth grade teacher but ended up with a job teaching first grade, which was one of the greatest times of my life that ended up being challenging in another way. I met many students who had it a lot more rough than I ever did when I was a child, and I hope that I had the impact on them that Mrs. Flynn did on me.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.