It’s no easy task to get — and maintain — the attention of a gaggle of children, tweens or teens in the classroom, especially today with smartphones and social media vying for mindshare. It can be hard to get these kids to engage, get them to care about the Pythagorean theorem or Genghis Khan’s conquests, especially in a public school system with dwindling budgets. Sure, the curriculum guides lesson plans, but teaching straight out of a book isn’t the way to excite and educate young people. Great teachers are mission-driven. They care about each student. They go above and beyond. They love their jobs. And they really need to be appreciated.
It’s not an easy career path, but a dedicated and passionate teacher can have an immense impact on the impressionable students in the class. Below, we hear from people in the digital space whose great teachers taught important lessons they’ve carried with them to adulthood — and success. Did a teacher have a huge impact on you? Share your story and thank them here.
In high school my Spanish teacher, Señorita Sbrizzi, believed in us so hard. She made the class so fun and inspiring that learning a new language became enjoyable, and eventually when I started traveling through Latin America in my 20’s it was those same Spanish language skills that opened my eyes to new people and places. Without her, there would be no Pencils Of Promise. She’s truly one of the people I admire most.
I’m lucky to have had many great teachers, but Kelly Wise, my senior seminar Novel & Drama teacher of Andover stands out above the rest. I remember the enormous personal commitment that was implied just by applying to his class. Everyone knew he required an insane amount of work — reading piles of books and plays and watching several movies each week; writing, trashing and rewriting papers several times in a row. He had impossibly high standards, but the payoff was well worth it. He pushed all of us so far beyond what any of us thought we were capable of achieving. However, it was the sense of community he built at the same time that stands out the most for me — I’ll never forget my fellow students in that class. Every student deserves a Kelly Wise experience.
Three days into my tenure as a first grader at Farmingville Elementary School, my parent’s received a surprising phone call: “Trip can’t read.” My mother’s response, and my teacher’s reaction to it, were both direct: “We know, isn’t it your job to teach him?”
Months of hard work later, my teacher, Mrs. Dervin, tasked me with the harrowing role of acknowledging a live audience at the conclusion of our class’ rendition of Tikki Tikki Tembo. I was to read from a notecard that Mrs. Dervin had prepared for me, but there was a catch — I wouldn’t be allowed to see the contents of the notecard until that very moment. Successfully navigating through my lines in front a live audience was a thrill I’ll never forget. It instilled in me a confidence in my abilities, and a love for reading, that I fostered throughout my academic career. Mrs. Dervin, deservingly so, was acknowledged in my Senior English Thesis at Princeton, which, if you look on a map, is a long ways away from Tikki Tikke Tembo.
Like many a high school student I was pretty awkward in my sophomore year of high school. I found myself in an AP english class taught by Laura Fore just about at the same time I decided that ‘being smart’ and ‘reading old books’ were not things that ‘cool kids’ did. For my first month in that class I was probably a monster. I didn’t read anything, was disruptive during class and was probably super disrespectful to Ms. Fore but for some reason she kept being super kind and patient with me. One day, about a month into class she pulled me aside and said, “I know you don’t think Lord Byron is going to help you here, right now. I know you might find Chaucer irrelevant to your experience here in high school. I know Wuthering Heights can be boring compared to the gossip going around the halls but these authors writings have endured for hundreds of years — the rumor on the bathroom stall will be painted over by next week, a weak memory by the time you graduate and completely forgotten by the time you enter the workforce. You have finite capacity in that brain of yours — use it to store and process things of meaning and you live a meaningful life.”
She knew I needed to hear that — I was torn between who I was and who I felt like my peers expected me to be. Her words hit me hard, and I started reading again and it was through her class that I discovered my love for writing (which probably led me to a career in PR) — but something in her words struck a deeper chord with me — and her approach to a ‘meaningful life’ has stuck with me. She taught me that we have to make choices about what we use our cognitive energy for and that those choices determine the direction of our lives — this is something that I doubt will ever fade from my memory (unlike the messages on the bathroom stalls — which she was totally right about).
Mr. Charles Balkcom was my favorite teacher. He demanded nothing short of excellence from my AP English class in high school. He was one of the only teachers who bucked the status quo and encouraged students to truly hone their passions. Mr. Balkcom wasn’t afraid to talk to his classes about controversial topics or encourage independent thinking. Even before online grading systems provided transparency, he stood by providing transparent grading metrics for his class and never made students wait to know their progress on an assignment. Nobody had any questions about their personal weaknesses or strengths, and everyone had a clear understanding of expectations for improvement. That level of transparency around academic progress is incredibly important. Most importantly, Mr. Balkcom took pride in his work. He never let someone else’s textbook guide his course. He never took the easy way out. His high expectations, his transparent (and timely) grading, and his commitment to bringing his absolute best to each lecture or discussion is what made students in class want to do their best in his course. Mr. Balkcom was the epitome of what it means to inspire and lead. And I will never forget the example that he set for his students.
Mr. Strouse was the first teacher to show me the value of telling stories as the most effective way of understanding and analyzing a problem rather than simply reciting facts. For years, I thought school was about memorizing answers and formulas, but Mr. Strouse told us really compelling stories. Sounds simple, but in reality, most teachers don’t approach teaching this way. Everything we did in class made us feel like we were reenacting a moment. He would pace the room waving his hands, while his voice vacillated. It was intense, and I genuinely felt like I was experiencing a moment in time. The goal wasn’t just to make learning fun — it was to empathize with the various people, organizations, companies, and countries involved in whatever event or era we were studying. Once I got to college, I realized how critical empathy was to so many things I studied. It made thinking through a problem easier and made writing flow more freely. It helped explain the why and made working with others more natural.
Like most high school students entering college, I didn’t know what I wanted to study. When my math teacher mentioned I might like engineering, I looked at her like she was crazy. An engineer, I thought, was certainly some nerdy guy calculating algorithms in front of computer screens all day. Being an engineer certainly wasn’t a path for a creative girl like myself! Nevertheless, her advice stuck with me, and I enrolled in Mechanical Engineering 101 during my first semester at Stanford University. In less than one class, I soon realized my high school math teacher was right along. Engineering — it turns out — is an amazing outlet for creativity and innovation. Without my teacher’s encouragement, there’s a good chance I wouldn’t have discovered the wonderful world of STEM and all it has to offer.
I was never a good student until I met Mr. Greco. Up until the seventh grade, it was always tough for me to stay motivated but he inspired me to study hard, stay focused and be determined not to fail. My desire to make him proud was what drove me to my success in his class, and beyond it. When people ask me what I attribute my success to today I say it’s three things: hard work, focus, and a love of what I do. What I don’t always mention and I’m glad I am able to share now, is that I learned those integral lessons early on, from my seventh grade teacher Mr. Greco.
Mr. Laitenberger was the first teacher I had who directly challenged me to be better, not just as a student, but as a person. As my eighth grade social studies teacher, he had a ruthless homework lateness policy that resulted in the lowest score I ever received on a report card; a 78! He was also the school track coach and at 12 years old I was not the most physically active, so he challenged me to join the cross country team and “lose my baby fat.” Yes, he actually said that!
I learned from Mr. L. that ability and vision is necessary in the equation, but it is ultimately execution that matters. You can be perfectly capable of doing something and may have demonstrated past performance, but if you don’t seize the initiative and continue to work at it, you’ll just be mediocre, or worse, never take that next big risk. This lesson has stayed with me throughout adulthood and into my career, through my five years at Google, until most recently when I made a life-changing move to start a company.
In 10th grade, I had a truly fantastic English teacher who, over time and with a decent amount of prodding from the class, told us his life’s story. Dharma Dass had always been extremely smart and driven growing up, and after graduating from college quickly took a job on Wall Street as a financial analyst making a cushy salary. He got married to a very beautiful girl very shortly after graduation, and generally felt pretty self-satisfied about his “progress” ticking off the items of life’s checklist. However, not long into the marriage, everything started to unravel. The relationship couldn’t handle the stress of his 90-hour work weeks, and the couple didn’t have the kind of solid foundation that’s only possible when two people truly know themselves before flinging themselves into a relationship. One day, he decided to share some of his lessons learned and explain to us what actually makes a marriage work. Most people would say that love is the most important component, but not Dharma Dass. He considered love to be a prerequisite certainly, but not the real crux of the matter where the rubber meets the road. Instead, marriage depends on three things, he told us: food, clothing, and shelter.
First off, food. If you can’t agree on what kind of food you like, that’s a minimum of 365 fights a year right off the bat. And it’s not just about the kind of food, but it’s also about your habits, where you like to eat, if you prefer cooking or dining out, and so on. There’s no right or wrong answer, he said, you just have to be on the same page about it. When it comes to clothing, he asked us, how much do you as a person care about fashion? Would you, or your partner member be embarrassed if your counterpart showed up to an event in Birkenstocks? Again, it doesn’t really matter where you fall on the spectrum because it’s a completely personal choice. But if you’re too far out of alignment with each other, the relationship will suffer from a lot of unnecessary tension and frustration. Shelter is about the big priorities. Does one of you want to structure your lives in such a way that you focus a significant amount of time working in order to buy your dream home, while the other doesn’t care if you live in a shack by the river? You can see how that wouldn’t work.
The concept that a marriage works best when predicated on the couple wanting the same things in life seems pretty basic to me now, but in 10th grade these ideas opened my eyes to a completely new way of thinking about relationships, priorities, and the big life decisions. It’s one of countless episodes where this teacher made me think and question my assumptions about what I knew. As a mentor, his contribution to my life was pretty much irreplaceable.