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Professional Development Opinion

Reflections on Our Favorite Teachers

By Larry Ferlazzo — March 15, 2020 16 min read
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Editor’s Note: Obviously, the main thing on all of our minds is not the qualities of our favorite teachers—it’s the coronavirus and its impact on our society, our students, our families, and on us. Ed Week has been doing a tremendous job covering its impact on schools, and I have been posting related resources and advice every day at my Websites Of The Day blog (see The Best Advice On Teaching K-12 Online (If We Have To Because Of The Coronavirus) - Please Make More Suggestions!). And, of course, I’ve been trying to figure out how to support my own students as our district shuts down.

Nevertheless, in this time of crisis, reading and thinking about non-coronavirus topics can be a welcome diversion now and then. I put thinking about and reading about our favorite teachers into that “welcome diversion” category.

(This post is the first in a multipart series.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

Who was your favorite teacher when you were attending school, and why was she/he your favorite?

We all had favorite teachers when we were going to school, and I suspect that most of us hope that our students feel that way about us.

This series will share reflections from educators on their favorite teachers and what qualities made them so memorable. Perhaps we can apply these recollections toward improving our own daily practice.

Students Share Their Best School Experiences & What We Can Learn From Them is the all-time most popular post from this column. Keeping that in mind, a number of columns in this series will also share commentaries from present-day students about their favorite teachers.

Today’s post will share responses from Elizabeth Villanueva, Jessica Levine, Betty Cárdenas, and Jenny Vo. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with the four of them on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

“Love and dedication”

Elizabeth Villanueva is a Spanish teacher and world-language department chair at Luther Burbank High School. She has been recognized as the 2018 National Education Association Social Justice Activist Award Finalist; 2018 California Teachers Association, César Chávez “Sí Se Puede Human Rights Award"; and Sacramento City Unified school district, Teacher of the Year 2015-2016. Elizabeth is an Ed.D., candidate at the University of San Francisco in the Learning and Instruction Doctoral Program with an emphasis in heritage-language maintenance:

When I first came to Salinas, Calif., at the age of almost 18 not knowing any English, I had an ESL teacher whose love and dedication for her students’ success made her my favorite teacher. Her name is Rosa Montoya, who was, for the very first time in my life that I remember, someone who told me I was smart. Ms. Montoya was the first teacher I encountered when I first attended Alisal High School in Salinas. I remember her being tall and skinny with a very deep and strong voice speaking in a language that I had no clue of what she was saying. That made me be afraid of her, or it was just the fact that I felt lost in her class at first for not being able to understand and communicate in English. I was not the only one feeling that way, since most of the students in her class were in a similar situation as myself as a new English-language learner who had recently arrived in this country.

As time passed, a group of friends and I looked for a safe spot to meet during lunch, and we found out that Ms. Montoya kept her classroom open during lunch, and her students were welcome to come and hang in there. It was during lunch that we would go and sit by her desk and just talked about our families or any difficult situations we were facing due to the fact that we were far from our home country. She would ask us what was something we missed the most or what we wanted to do once we graduated from high school.

One day in specific, during the spring semester a few weeks before summer break, I remember at the beginning of her lesson she was very happy and excited sharing something that I couldn’t understand much except for the word “Paris.” It is a cognate in Spanish, and that last syllable sounds the same in both languages. We didn’t know then that she spoke Spanish; we knew that she understood because we would speak to her in Spanish, and she would respond in English. After she explained in English her summer plans, she switched to Spanish to let us know that she was going to Paris for her summer break. I was amazed and speechless because it was the first time that I knew someone who was going to Europe, specifically Paris. Then during lunch, we came back to her classroom, and I asked her so many about her upcoming trip. Then one of her answers was, “Elizabeth, when you go to college, you will travel to Paris and so many other countries yourself.” That was the first time that I heard the word “college.” I didn’t know what exactly that meant, but the way that she said it with such determination and a belief in me made me believe that one day I would travel like her.

My hopes and dreams that one day I could be “someone” in this country flew up to the sky. That was just one example of the many times she would instill in me motivation and guidance so that I would apply myself to graduate from high school in two years. She was the one who introduced me to my counselor to ensure that I was getting the right classes that would help me learn English faster and complete the high school requirements. She gave me academic tools, guidance, and an English and Spanish dictionary that I still have. She motivated me by saying that if I studied and received a college education, I could also travel the world like her. Her trust, commitment, simplicity, and interest influenced me tremendously later on in college to decide to become a teacher. Ms. Montoya’s passion, love, and patience to teach her subject matter and students were transmitted instantly. I believed her. I was very fortunate to have had her.

She not only cared for my academic success but also for my well-being. Even when I was not in her class anymore because my second year in high school as a senior I was taking regular English classes, she was constantly checking in on me. That fear and intimidation that I first felt in her class became admiration and respect for her and her profession. She was intentional and purposeful. Now, I have become a passionate teacher and world traveler, hoping one day my students will get inspired and expand their horizons as well.

“She advocated for me”

Jessica Levine is an innovative educator who strives to provide exceptional learning experiences for students and adult learners. She has presented on multiple topics focused on effective technology integration and innovative practices at the national and local level. Connect with her on twitter: @SCTechJess:

I want you to reflect on your career as an educator. When designing lessons, implementing classroom-management strategies, and connecting with your students, do you find yourself thinking about your childhood experiences? To this day, I often think about the experiences I had as a student. Even though I’ve had some amazing teachers throughout my elementary, secondary, and postsecondary school years, there are two teachers who have played an integral part in my professional and personal life. It has been close to 20 years since I’ve been in middle school; however, the qualities Mr. Tagg and Mrs. Bendell displayed are unforgettable.

Mr. Tagg was my Algebra 1 Honors teacher in 8th grade at Berkeley Middle School. Math has always been my favorite subject in school, but having Mr. Tagg as a teacher made my math class even better. He was very approachable and enthusiastic about teaching. There was never a dull moment in his class. I remember engaging in fun lessons and learning practical strategies to solve complex algebra problems. The most memorable part of my class was when Mr. Tagg turned the topic of probability and statistics into a game-based baseball unit. We also went on a field trip to a minor-league baseball game in Charleston. It was a remarkable experience because I had an opportunity to see what I was learning in school right before my eyes in the real world. As an educator, I strive to re-enact moments like this for students and other educators in the classroom and through my professional-development sessions.

Another phenomenal teacher I had was Mrs. Bendell. She also taught at Berkeley Middle School where she was my 6th grade Honors English teacher. I can truly say she instilled a love for writing and public speaking within me. She provided me with so many strategies to develop great speeches and writing samples. She was my only English teacher who allowed my classmates and me to share all of our writing samples with one another. I used to look forward to delivering my speeches and hearing from my classmates to get new ideas. As an adult, I have had an opportunity to deliver a Ted talk at the 2019 ISTE Conference. I’ve also presented at multiple national, state, and local conferences.

When I think about Mrs. Bendell, I also remember her being an advocate for me. The first couple of weeks in middle school, I was in the wrong classes. Before coming to middle school, I was in gifted and talented classes. For some odd reason, my schedule did not reflect this when I went to middle school. One day I spoke with Mrs. Bendell and shared with her my concerns. I told her that I was not in the right classes and that I should be in her Honors English class. Instead of brushing it off, she advocated for me. She went to the guidance department to share this information with them. She also told them how she felt it was necessary to change my schedule. Long story short, Mrs. Bendell was able to get my schedule changed within two weeks. I will never forget what she did for me. This is why I make sure to advocate for all of my students. Every child needs educators who will have their best interest at heart.

Abdul Kalam said, “Teaching is a very noble profession that shapes the character, caliber, and future of an individual.” Educators must be mindful that everything they do has a lasting impression on their students. I’m thankful for the experiences I’ve had with Mr. Tagg and Mrs. Bendell for they have shaped my life. Thank you for being exceptional educators. You are my favorite teachers.

She helped me “establish my purpose”

Betty A. Cárdenas was a Texas bilingual educator for seven years and has most recently been serving as a bilingual/ESL & special education specialist for the Region One Education Service Center in the Rio Grande Valley. With a passion and dedication to the educational field, she is now pursuing doctoral courses in bilingual education at Texas A&M Kingsville. She seeks continuous learning experiences for herself that can help her provide all students with a feeling of success and enjoyment in school:

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” I remember being asked that question numerous times as a child. Now I wonder, is it possible that the knowing of who we aspire to be is the most important question to know the answer for? To me, this question never held more weight than it did my 4th grade year with Ms. Pérez.

I distinctly remember dividing my paper in half to draw a singer on one side (Selena Quintanilla was my idol) and a teacher on the other. Like any great teacher would, Ms. Pérez had us write the explanation for our choices underneath. Both reasons dealt with how these two actions made me feel. Singing gave me a sense of liberation and expression. Although I quickly realized that singing along to the radio or in the shower was enough singing satisfaction for me, I enjoyed dancing more, too. Teaching, though, teaching was another story.

Ms. Pérez gave us multiple group-work opportunities in which I would often take the leader role to help others, or she herself would assign us to assist. Being able to help others made me feel productive and useful, like I was making a difference. This feeling created a sense of purpose that went beyond completing my work. It was a sense of accomplishment to know I had made a difference in someone’s understanding. That’s what I was after when I decided to become a teacher.

Now as an educator, I’ve been asked the question, “Who was your favorite teacher?” multiple times. Usually, this question leads up to the importance of teaching the whole child. While my answer has always been, “Ms. Pérez,” and I rationalized my decision with her granting me the opportunity to realize the direction I wanted my life to take, I slowly realized it was much more than that. I have jogged my memory and discovered she stands out to me for more reasons than one.

Ms. Pérez was the patient type of teacher that always had encouraging words, she had high expectations, and rewarded our efforts. Even when we happened to break the rules, she would calmly inquire the reason for our behavior and helped us to see the importance of taking alternative steps. Moreover, as I went down memory lane, another profound memory I stumbled upon was my first day of school with Ms. Pérez. Like other parents, my dad walked me to her doorway. She greeted us with her genuine smile and communicated to him in Spanish that this would be my first school year to be in an all-English class but not to worry because she would still be giving me assistance as needed. “Le va ir bien,” she said, “she will do well.” I remember feeling the sense of importance in what she was saying, but at nine years of age didn’t realize why it was such a big deal. Hadn’t I already been receiving English instruction? I knew I had been receiving instruction in both languages and I had always been made to feel like both languages were valued and important. With Ms. Pérez, it was no different, but it did mark my transition year during which, in retrospect, being successful in her class only provided further validation.

Ms. Pérez did much more than present me with the opportunity to think of what I wanted to be when I grew up. She emphasized the importance of aspiration through her dedication to ensure I had a successful year since day one. She found my strengths and built upon them. Overall, she helped me believe—believe that I could be what I set out to be. Yet most importantly and unknowingly, by valuing me as whole, she marked the beginning of my need to provide students with the same empowering feeling that she provided me. With Ms. Pérez, I knew the answer not only to the most important question, but subconsciously I had also established my purpose: my why.

“Emotional support and love”

Jenny Vo earned her B.A. in English from Rice University and her M.Ed. in educational leadership from Lamar University. She has worked with English-learners during all of her 23 years in education and is currently an ESL ISST in Katy ISD in Katy, Texas:

I’ve had many amazing teachers during the years I was in school. A number of them still hold a special place in my heart—my 3rd grade teacher Mrs. Logsdon, my 5th grade teacher Mr. Wooley, and my 9th grade English teacher Mrs. Vurlicer are just a few. However, the title of my favorite teacher goes to Mrs. Virginia Newcomb. Mrs. Newcomb has been my favorite teacher ever since I met her in 3rd grade at Robert F. Elementary School in San Jose, Calif. Mrs. Newcomb was actually the school librarian, but she also served as the gifted and talented teacher for our campus. My relationship with Mrs. Newcomb started when I qualified for the GT program in 3rd grade.

I started at Kennedy Elementary as a 2nd grader in 1981. We had just arrived in the United States that year—my dad and I. My mother and younger siblings were still in Vietnam. My dad and I had been reunited with my grandmother and uncle, who had come to the United States in 1985. At that time, we were living in a two-bedroom apartment with another family. I did not know much English—only a few words that I had learned from a few classes on the refugee island. But I was a voracious learner, soaking up everything like a sponge. I stayed after school and joined one of the 3rd grade classes when they had tutorials. I picked up the language quickly and was recommended and qualified for the GT program the next year in 3rd grade. From then on, this motherless girl found a mother and a second family in the form of our school’s sweet librarian and my GT teacher—Mrs. Virginia Newcomb.

Once I started the gifted and talented classes, Mrs. Newcomb and I were pretty much inseparable. I stayed after school helping her to shelve books (and reading all of them as I shelve!) and inventorying and tagging books in the summer. My love for reading blossomed under her tutelage. Our summer weekends were spent at church and garage sales. I still vividly remember driving around in her convertible with the top down and feeling the breeze blowing on my face.

Even though my family moved to another area when I started junior high, my weekends and summers with Mrs. Newcomb continued. Vacation bible school sessions were my favorite because I saw her every day! One summer, she even took me to Disneyland! I so cherished those days with Mrs. Newcomb and her daughter, Linda! My uncle and dad were busy working so we didn’t go anywhere, so my time with Mrs. Newcomb were a reprieve from those lonely Saturdays and Sundays cooped up in the apartment. Sadly, those weekends ended when my family moved to Texas in 1986. However, Mrs. Newcomb and I still kept in touch through letters and phone calls. The frequency got less and less as I grew older, but the love was still ever present. When I got married in 1994, Mrs. Newcomb and Linda flew over from California to attend my wedding. When I gave birth to my daughter, I received an ABC book that Mrs. Newcomb had painstakingly created for Kaitlin. We exchange Christmas cards and letters every year. I hope to bring my two children to visit her soon! Mrs. Newcomb will always be my favorite teacher because of the emotional support and love she gave me when I needed these things so desperately.

Thanks to Elizabeth, Jessica, Betty, and Jenny for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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