Can a teacher have a lasting impact on the life of a student?
Or at least that’s been my experience.
It has been 40 years since I last sat in Miss Whitson’s Grade Six classroom at Green Glade Public School in Mississauga and yet I still feel her influence each and every day.
Sometimes it’s in little ways: I’ll start to write a sentence that ends in the word “before” (“I’ve never had that kind of tea before”) and I’ll hear her voice in my head asking “Before what?” (Ending a sentence with “before” was one of her grammatical pet peeves!)
But at other times, her influence is bigger. Much bigger. I’ll be sitting at my desk, trying to decide on a topic for an article or a book, and I’ll remember her advice to my much younger self: “Write what you know.” It is advice that’s served me well throughout my entire writing career. In fact, it is advice that has defined my writing career.
I remember how she managed to set the bar high—but not too high—for her students: high enough to motivate you to want to try your best, but not so high that you were doomed to fall flat on your face. And if you dared to aim high, but missed the mark, you knew she would be standing there ready to cushion your fall and to encourage you to try again. You see, she gave her students the gift of unconditional acceptance—a fierce belief in our own worthiness as human beings and our ability to contribute to the world. What an incredible gift to give a group of eleven- and twelve-year-olds who were about to embark on the often rocky journey known as the teenage years.
She fed our brains with literature (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis comes to mind) and instilled in us an appreciation for the natural world. Sometimes she managed to do both of these things at once, taking us outdoors on days when it was too hot to do any work and reading to us as we sat underneath the trees.
A year ago, I had the opportunity to have dinner with Miss Whitson and a couple of my former classmates—to reconnect and reminisce about our time in her class. It soon became obvious that this memorable year in my life as a student had been just as memorable for my former classmates as well. And what stood out in our minds was how special we were made to feel by this inspiring and compassionate teacher.
Miss Whitson was an educational visionary, practicing relationship-based teaching before people were even talking about the importance of the teacher-student bond. And they’re talking about it a lot these days.
The subject came up during a recent conversation with Angela DePalma, Chair of the Council that governs the Ontario College of Teachers (the regulatory body that licenses our teachers, sets high professional and ethical standards, and approves teacher education programs)
“Research shows that’s the relationship between teacher and student that has the greatest impact on learning,” she noted.
And on living, she might have added.
Four decades after I walked out of Miss Whitson’s classroom for the very last time, she continues to have an impact on the person I aspire to be and the dreams I dare to pursue.
That is her legacy to me.
[ This blog post is part of a parent outreach and education campaign sponsored by the Ontario College of Teachers. ]