An Open Letter to My First-Grade Teacher
I am a failure. Many define failure as lack of success and omission of required action. I would say that in my past, I qualified as a failure on both counts.
Today, as a principal in a school, I am always aiming for success for our students, our staff, and myself. I’m going into my fourth year as a principal and I’m more driven than ever toward success. But I am also a failure.
I dropped out of high school. Yes, I am devoted to education today, but I am a high school dropout. That choice haunted me until I was 30 and finally entered the education world again. Oh, I could tell you the reasons, the excuses, the justifications, and I will. In the end, though, it boiled down to just giving up on myself. I wasn’t even struggling academically. I just felt hopeless in a school system trapped in its own mediocre practices. I was bored. I felt alone. In addition, because I had missed my freshman year, I knew that I would be in high school for one more year than I had originally planned. I couldn’t stand the thought of that. The sad thing is, I had enrolled myself in school after running away from home the previous year, but after a year of attending high school I wanted out. I could not, no matter how hard I tried, recapture the original love for school I once had. It was a mystery to my 16-year-old brain. I have since figured it out.
I looked forward to going to school when I was younger mostly because of my first-grade teacher, Mrs. Dennis. I’ve heard a lot about how future dropouts can be spotted in first grade. I’ll bet you that Mrs. Dennis spotted me immediately. I was shy, withdrawn, and probably looked pretty neglected, and sometimes I looked bruised and beaten. My parents spent most of their waking hours drunk or recovering from major benders, so I along with my brother and sister knew that we weren’t their priority. We mostly just stayed off our parents’ radars. It was the safest route. My other two brothers had both already run away at around the age of 15. I’ve already told you what I would do around that age too.
Back to Mrs. Dennis: she was the first adult to show me unconditional love. She spent so much time on me. Pretty soon, I didn’t feel shy in her class and I was able to show her how much I wanted to read and how curious I was about the world. I had a lot of questions, and I probably annoyed her quite a bit. But for the first time in my life, I felt safe to just be myself. What a relief that was. How freeing! I’m not, in my most authentic self, a naturally shy person and Mrs. Dennis showed me that.
Throughout my life, I would retreat into myself when I didn’t feel safe. However, my love of academics pulled me through elementary school. I credit Mrs. Dennis with this. I’ve even tried finding her to thank her, but I haven’t found her—yet. So, Mrs. Dennis, wherever you are, you are a true success. I actually did have my failures, but my memories of you inspired me to ultimately reach for success, for myself and most importantly for kids. Like you did. Yes, I know you must have taught me so much. I believe that my love for reading was born in your classroom, and much of my education came from what I read through the years. My memories of you are a little fragmented and fuzzy. (I thought you were in your 50s when you were my teacher, but now I know you weren’t even 30.) But I still remember how you made me feel: cared for, important, and worth it. Worth your time. Worth your effort. Worth figuring me out. Worth more than the hand I was dealt in life. I have broken out of grinding poverty and a seemingly endless cycle of alcoholism and ignorance that were hallmarks of my family line at the time. I am an educator, my son is an educator, and my daughter wants to help kids through psychology when she finishes her degrees. All of this really is because of you, Mrs. Dennis—and it’s just a small part of the legacy you must be leaving in this world.
A teacher like Mrs. Dennis practiced the tenets of great instruction, and she probably practiced alone. I’m sure there wasn’t much talk of collaboration, intervention, extension, and team goal setting back then. If the PLC movement had been in play in my childhood school, more kids would have received the stellar education I received in Mrs. Dennis’s classroom.
In my current school and district, I feel we are closer to the ideal education for all kids because of our participation in the PLC at Work™ Institute. Thank you for what you are doing for kids. I know it is changing their futures for the better. I’m living proof of what one great educator can do for a child. Imagine a school full of great educators, functioning as team, and what that would mean! Because of the PLC at Work™ Institute and all we and our district are learning with you, we now have the tools and structures to work together for the greatest generation to walk the planet.