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Teachers: Your Students are your Legacy

For students in school, it’s graduation time.  Many young students are graduating from one grade to the next and still others are graduating from their high school and taking the next big step on their life’s journey into adulthood.  Of these, some will go directly into the job market; some will join the armed services; some will go on to learn a trade; and still others will go on to college. 

As you graduate, I would ask that you take a moment to reflect on the teachers you had and to commit to your long-term memory those who made a particular impact on your learning journey and what that impact was; as I am about to share with you those teachers who had a particular impact on me and mine.

Background:

But context and circumstances are important, and I will share with you my circumstances so that you might understand my journey from walking for a short spell in my shoes; for these are my points of reference.  And although I appreciate, understand, and am empathetic to others who have had different experiences than mine, I would ask that you try to have the same for me as I share.

I was born and raised in EndicottNew York; a largely rural area in Upstate New York near the smallish city of Binghamton; it’s claim to fame is being the birthplace of International Business Machines (IBM).

I started Kindergarten in 1968 and graduated from high school in 1981.

The demographic of that area was largely white middle-class.  Most of the people worked at IBM or had their jobs otherwise dependent upon IBM.  When I say, “largely white”, by that and for example, a quick scan of my yearbook revealed there were only a total six Black students (two in my class), four Asian students (one in my class), and no Hispanic students; this out of a high school with over 2,000 students. 

I didn’t hang out or get to know any of these students because they didn’t live near me and we ran in different crowds; my “cliques” were the nerds and the rock-and-roll crowd.

My Mom was a stay-at-home Mom.  I don’t recall her ever having a job outside the house except for (perhaps) a couple of very short-term part-time positions.  By this, I mean have a recollection of a notion of her working outside the house, but not anything specific.

And I know circumstances are dramatically different today. 

For instance, I would guess that every community in the States today is much more diverse than the one I grew up in.  And I am sure that there are very few mothers who are without a job by choice, with many of these working mothers earning incomes that are at least on par with fathers.  I am also aware that this dramatic change in the dynamics of the home life has resulted in a similar change being necessary in the role of education; even beyond what education means and how it is delivered, but with having a greater role in supporting families where both parents (or the sole parent) working.

So this is not a “when I was growing up” story, because I know that every generation and the circumstances that exist when young people are growing up is different from the previous.

Rather, this is a story of reflection on my grade-school experiences and of the educators that I was fortunate enough to have – and my sharing with others some of the individual teachers and their contribution to who I am today.  And, perhaps, this article is to offer you the opportunity to reflect on those educators who helped you along your journey.

My Teacher All-Star Roster (and others of note):

Kindergarten and Ms. Chaffee;  My first experience in school was not a very pleasant one.  I had a challenge in that I was/am naturally left-handed and my teacher would not allow me to write with my left hand.  Every time I tried, she was right there with the ruler to smack my hand.  Even as I struggled to write with my right hand, she would chastise me for drawing my numbers and letters backwards.  I had an especially difficult time writing the number “7”.

I believe to this day, that the reason I print so terribly (and could never do cursive), is because of my being forced to do something that was not natural.  Interestingly, I broke my right arm skiing when I was in my 30’s and had to write with my left.  It was a real struggle until I realized that I could easily right in a “mirror” image, from right to left with all of the characters backwards.

Grades 1-2 and Ms. Orlando;  First grade didn’t start off well either with Ms. Wolfe as a teacher.  But she left fairly early in the year and was replaced by Ms. Orlando.  Where Ms. Wolf was cold and demanding, Ms. Orlando was engaging and made learning enjoyable.  It was like night and day.  And I actually looked forward to going to school.  I was fortunate to have Ms. Orlando again in Grade-2.

We had a school project where we made and sold bird houses.  With the proceeds of the money, the class bought a spruce tree and we planted it in the back corner of the school parking lot.  Some years later, I would see that tree again – I never realized how fast spruce trees grew.  It was a mighty tall tree.

Grade 4 and Ms. DeLuca;  This is the grade where my curiosity grew much faster than I was growing, and I had the great fortune of having Ms. Deluca as a teacher.  I loved to read.  I didn’t read novels, but I devoured science books from across all topics.  There were books on outer-space (a particularly favorite subject) and inner-space.  Many of the science books would take me on imaginary journeys to where the science happened; especially as they took me to the origins of the science and the people and places involved. 

When I told Ms. DeLuca I wanted to be a “scientist”, she went out of her way to make sure I had the space to explore and set aside a corner of the room for me to self-study; reading my books, conducting experiments.  Of course, it didn’t matter that a person could no longer really be a scientist in the generalist sense like Aristotle, Archimedes, and Da Vinci; but that I would need to be more specialized.  But that was a problem that could be solved later.

When she saw that I had a particular interest in space and in flight, she helped me to write a letter to NASA’s public relations department introducing myself as a student and requesting information on the various programs they had going.  I sent it, and a few weeks later I received a giant care package complete with pamphlets about the space program (Saturn-V rockets and Skylab were big at the time), pictures (8*10 glossies) of launches, Extra-Vehicular Activities (EVA’s), and even a couple of mission patches.  It was really cool.

Grade 5 and Ms. Farynyk;  Although not as supportive of Ms. DeLuca, Ms. Farynyk as also a fine teacher who not only taught, but encouraged learning.  The high-water mark with Ms. Farynyk came after I took the IOWA Assessments.  I was called to the Principal’s office for an interview.  Come to find out, not only did I finish the test, but I got every question right.  It wasn’t until well after that they thought that I had cheated and Ms. Farynyk has assisted.  I can only guess that my nonchalant reactions to the interview (I didn’t think it was that big a deal and didn’t care that much about grades) dispelled any such notion.

Grade 6 and Ms. Lenhart;  I got interested again in science with Ms. Lenhart.  In this particular case, her interest in geology became mine and she invited me to participate in the New York Southern Tier Geology Club.  It was great fun and interesting; not only learning about geology and the various minerals and gems, but how and where they came to be.

I was even invited, along with another student, to do a no/low-budget productions for the local National Public Radio “Rocks, Stones, Gems, and Things”.  It was my first time in front of a camera and was a fascinating experience.  I wish I could find a copy of the program, but it was well before YouTube.

Middle School;  Middle School was the first time we went from class to class for the different subjects rather than having a single teacher.  I must say, this lack of intimacy must have taken some toll, as I cannot remember a single learning or event that stands out, nor the name of a single teacher, except Ms. Delancy (more on her next).

Grade 9 Spanish and Ms. Delancy;  I took two years of Spanish in Middle School under Ms. Delancy.  And try as I might, I could not learn the language well and just managed to pass.  The biggest criticism I would receive then and in High School was Ms. Delancy telling me that I speak Spanish with a New York accent.  But I tried very hard and often went in for extra help.  When I took the Regents Exam, I scored a 66 (just enough to pass and meet the criterion for the Regents Diploma).  I am certain that my work was not good enough to earn such a score and I should have failed.  All I can say is that Ms. Delancy must have very kindly graded the essay in Spanish that was on the test.

Grade 9 Social Studies, and Mrs. And Mr. Blair;  My first impression of Mr. Blair was awe.  He was a giant of a Black man; very tall, and I remember how big his hands were – as big as my head.  But he was kind and did everything, from his speaking to the way he walked, very slowly and deliberately.

I soon discovered that he was the husband of Mrs. Blair, who I had as a third-grade teacher.  She was also from the south and was a kind soul, although not a teacher that I can recall much of other than confiscating the Matchbox cars (and deservedly so) from my friends and me that we brought to class.

One day, in passing, I lightheartedly shared the story with Mr. Blair that I had his wife in third-grade and that she had made a habit of confiscating our Matchbox cars; and that I found it all rather funny in retrospect.  Well, wouldn’t you know, a few days or so later, he gave me a box filled with all of the Matchbox cars that were confiscated – I was shocked.

But there was one particular event that stood out, and I won’t share the details here, but I learned quite a bit from Mr. Blair about empathy and how to handle confrontation – and that there were these things called prejudice and bigotry in the world.  I had never been exposed to or even heard of such things until then and witnessing it made me feel quite uncomfortable.  I couldn’t understand why a person would behave in such a manner towards another; and still can’t.

Grade 10 English and Mr. Hynes;  Of all of my teachers, Mr. Hynes was my most favorite.  He brought a particular happiness to teaching and every day was an enjoyable one.  We read the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey” by Homer; such was the impact that my youngest son’s middle name is Odysseus.  And we did a deep dive into “Great Expectations” by Charles Dickens; reading both the book and watching the original black and white movie and spending considerable time discussing.

But the most impactful lessons learned were understanding the poem “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley; it’s background and meaning.  And we had to memorize it and could be “invicted” anywhere and anytime and had to recite it on the spot for a grade.  I have invoked “Invictus” many times over the years to summon an inner strength when I faced some daunting challenges.  You can learn more of this, and Mr. Hynes, here.

Grade 11 in Virginia;  I spent my eleventh grade in ManassasVirginia.  Not a single positive experience came from it, or from any of the teachers I had.  I can’t remember the names of any of my teachers, this being how unremarkable they were.  The only good that came out of it was my understanding that we don’t have to accept the status-quo; we can challenge it, and we can win.

I took “Communication” as an elective for the sole purpose that photography, including darkroom work, was to be taught in one of the semesters.  So, I endured a semester of creating isometric drawings (each day, we had to create on of a block which was given to us).  After a dozen blocks, it became boring.

The last semester came, and much to my consternation we were not going to have photography, but rather we were going to spend it drawing more blocks.  I was not going to participate in that.  So I decided to skip classes and just go to the school library and read whatever caught my attention.  After a few days of missing class, but not being absent, I was called to the principal’s office to explain myself; and I did.

I explained that the only reason I took the course at all was for photography.  And if they were not going to teach photography, I wasn’t going to go to class – I would just go to the library.  Well, a few days later, they found a photography teacher to teach the class.  I got “zeros” that counted as test scores for the days I missed, and I failed the semester as a result, but we got photography.

That was a powerful lesson to learn; that each of us can make a difference if we just stand-up for what we believe and are willing to take the responsibility and hits to get it. 

Grade 12 Social Studies and Mr. Dinaburg;  As unplanned as it was, twelfth grade found me back in Endicott New York.  My being in Virginia for eleventh grade and not taking the regents exams for some key courses where I had to have passed the Regents exams to get a Regents diploma, meant that I had to do some make-ups. 

One of these courses that I had to make-up was Social Studies and I had the pleasure of taking the class with Mr. Dinaburg.  As with Mr. Hynes, he brought his joy of teaching and his passion for the subject to class every day.  He taught beyond the textbook, and he challenged us to think beyond the textbook and to think critically of the material – to question everything and form our own opinions of the facts being presented and those which needed to be researched to fill the gaps.  He is retired now, and we still keep in close touch.

Grade 12 “Utopian Literature” and Mr. Lipmann;  This was the most philosophical class I took in grade school and it was taught by a teacher who is die-cast from the hippie movement of the ‘60’s.  This is not to be thought of disparagingly, but to form an image in your mind’s eye.  We read books like “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley and “Walden Two” by B.F. Skinner.  And when we would review, he would ask us how we feel about the material, whether such a Utopian world could exist, and why or why not.  In retrospect, he politics  were definitely Liberal Progressive Socialist, but he never once tried to instill in us his politics – but rather discuss and debate.  A pretty cool guy.

Where Mr. Dinaburg encouraged us to question everything to discover what you think, Mr. Lipman encouraged us to question everything to discover how we feel.

Footnote; I had worked very hard to earn my Regents Diploma, especially having to play catch-up from my year in Virginia.  The benefit, and my motivation, was that I would earn a $300 per year Regents Scholarship.  It might not sound like a lot, but it would pay quite a bit of my tuition (back when higher education did not cost nearly as much as today).

Well, New York State was in a financial bind (perpetually, it seems), and Governor Hugh Carey killed the program just as I was about to graduate; thanks a lot Hugh.  But I learned another life-lesson from this.  Never trust the government.

Student becomes the teacher:

My time in grade school is long past.  But the memories and learnings of my experiences are still with me and I call upon them often; well, maybe not Trigonometry.  I mean, who really uses Sin, Cosine, and Tangent?

And now I own consulting businesses.  In essence, I am constantly teaching – and to remain sharp, I am also constantly learning.  And it calls me to contemplate some of my peers (perhaps even myself).  Do we try to remain hermitized in what we know and not let our students question everything and explore for themselves?  After all, we are not the sole keepers of the truth.  We should welcome challenges and open debate as a means of furthering our body-of-knowledge.

Conclusion:

Indeed, I was blessed with having a great many teachers in my life – and as many mentors.  And I truly hope that you were as blessed as I was. 

I hear a lot of discussion how grade-school teachers are “teaching to the test”.  What I understand when I hear that is that the goal of teaching is to ensure the students do well on tests and not to teach them to think and to reason – problem solve and form their own opinions.  Having been out of school myself for a darn long time, and now having my sons both out of school, I can’t say for sure that this is true.  But I certainly hope not.  However, I will say that I would be completely lost if I had to help my child with math and was required to understand “common-core”.  I looked at it.  Not happening.

But I also did my part in my learning journey.  By that, I mean a person can only be taught if they want to learn.  And the best teachers are the ones who bring out the desire to learn in their students.  I am sure that it’s a difficult task and not always successfully accomplished, for it’s often challenging to discover what motivates a student to learn.

This is why I pay it forward by helping and mentoring students young and old; basically, I will devote time to pretty much anyone who asks (which can be a challenge time-management wise).  Although I used to be involved in Scouts while I was in the States, the youngest people I support now are usually underclassmen at college where I help them find their way on to their careers.  And the older people I help are almost always deep into their profession and want to learn more of the wisdom I have gained over the years.

But I must confess – and this is the secret – aside from the personal satisfaction of having taught someone something new, I would bet that I learn as much from teaching them as they do from my teaching them.

In the end, we are all students.  And we are also all teachers. 

And our students, the people who we touch, are our legacy.

Paris is an international expert in the field of Operational Excellence, organizational design, strategy design and deployment, and helping companies become high-performance organizations.  His vehicles for change include being the Founder of; the XONITEK Group of Companies; the Operational Excellence Society; and the Readiness Institute.

He is a sought-after speaker and lecturer and his book, “State of Readiness” has been endorsed by senior leaders at some of the most respected companies in the world.

Click here to learn more about Joseph Paris or connect with him on LinkedIn

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