An Open Letter To Teacher Heroes

Sheryl Lain

Dear Fellow Teachers,

I do not have to know you personally to know you are heroes. I've seen you teach with focus and grace. You've taught kids how to write and prove a hypothesis; you've taught them how to read stories that change their lives; you've taught them how to solve for x.

I have watched you keep the delicate balance between being a teacher with knowledge and skills and a warm person who sees potential in every single student. Goethe spoke of potential. He said that when you look at people and reflect what they are, that's all you'll get--what they are. But when you look at people and reflect what they might be, you open up the doors of their futures. That's what you do. You teach with both your mind and your heart, and kids can see their potential reflected in your eyes when you look at them.

You will live in the memories of your students. In first grade I had Mrs. Shabbot. She had silver hair that she wore in a braided circlet on the top of her head. She had vivid, almost violet blue eyes. Mrs. Shabbot taught all of us to read--town kids and farm kids, rich kids and poor kids. "Jump, Jip, Jump, said Alice and Jerry." I remember she kissed me once on the cheek when Dad came to collect me early for Christmas break. I remember her after nearly seven decades.

Far down the line, you will live on in someone's life because you are a teacher. You gave students knowledge they'd never attain without you, and you gave them affection (though you probably haven't kissed them!).

I remember a study I read once. It seems that some social service agency conducted a survey of highly at-risk kids--kids who were fostered out, kids whose lives we can only imagine. When these youngsters were asked who gave them hope, 80% of them said a teacher. You are this beacon of hope for countless students.

I remember a story Mrs. Mauck told me. She taught first grade in a high-poverty school. Some of her students carried bruises on skin and soul. Every day after school she walked one particular little girl to the edge of the playground and waved her home. Mrs. M. suspected that the curb between the school yard and the street was this child's boundary between safety and fear. So Mrs. M. waved her home, stood in the winter wind and waved as long as the child could see her. One day, as Mrs. M was waving, that little girl stopped and turned around. She started to run; she ran straight into Mrs. M's arms. "God blesses you, Mrs. M."

Mother Teresa once spoke about her work with the sick and dying and her efforts to help orphans in India. After the speech, someone stood and asked, "You have done so much to make the world a better place. What can I do?"

Just love the children," Mother Theresa replied. Mrs. Mauck did just that.

You labor in the field with kids. There is history to teach and science, there is literature as well as music. Teaching is a huge job, daunting even, especially in the face of the challenges you encounter--changes in curricula, testing, and mandates of every kind. But I remember Helen Keller, another of my heroes, when she said, "I am only one; but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; I will not refuse to do the something I can do."

Thank you for doing what you can do. You make all the difference in the world.

Sheryl Lain began teaching on the Wind River Indian Reservation. Before her recent retirement, she served as the director of the Wyoming Writing Project, international consultant for the Bureau of Education & Research, language arts coordinator for kindergarten through twelfth grades at the district level, and instructional leader of teachers at the state level. She published a book about building community in the classroom entitled A Poem for Every Student.