Guest Author

Each All Things PLC blog post author has been personally invited to contribute by the All Things PLC committee. All contributing experts have firsthand experience successfully implementing the PLC at Work™ process.

Dana Solomon, Principal, Phillips Elementary

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 I was shy, withdrawn, and probably looked pretty neglected, and sometimes I looked bruised and beaten.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.


Madison Adair

Dana, thank you for sharing this beautiful story! Your educational journey was truly inspiring. I know that I have several students in my class who come from homes where their needs aren't always met. I am glad you thought so highly of your first grade teacher and that she made that big of an impact on your life. My hope is that I can have the same impact on my students!

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kerry lynch

Thank you for sharing your story. As a first grade teacher, one of the most important things that I strive for is to instill a love of learning in my students. I only hope that I can do this as Mrs. Denis did for you. I strongly feel that the collaborative community of educators that I work closely with serves to strengthen and improve the educational experience of all our students.

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Maribel Alviso

Hello Dana
Your story inspired me to keep working hard!

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amanda oneill

Dana, your post is an inspiration to all your students. It's amazing how one teacher can make such a profound impact on a student. I had a teacher who inspired me to enter the teaching field and have a love for education.

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Cindy Betancourt

Hi Dana,

First, thank you for sharing such personal and inspiring events from your life. It is a touching story that made me reflect on my beliefs as a teacher. Mrs. Dennis is an outstanding teacher who showed compassion, and understanding. More importantly, believed in you and your abilities. I am very interested in learning about PLC. I think that it would help my school, and colleagues become successful in offering a high quality education to our students! Again, thank you for sharing and I hope that you find Mrs. Dennis soon.

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Britney Lovelace

I am in tears from reading your open letter. I am a new first grade teacher and am so inspired to play such a vital role in someone's life. Maya Angelou said that "People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” We need more Mrs. Dennis in the world. What a true testament of such powerful words.

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Ande Miller

Thank you for sharing your moving story. I feel like many educators enter this profession after stimulation from an inspirational teacher like Mrs. Dennis. Whether it be from academic motivation or a life changing unconditional love, educators change lives. I completely agree with your statement regarding the legacy of Mrs. Dennis. She aided in breaking an unhealthy cycle in which you were are part of and has thus created a cycle of healing, love, and inspiration. You, your son, and daughter are now multiplying a healthy and loving cycle into the lives you touch. Therefore, her legacy lives through you as you simultaneously create your own. Thank you for sharing and reminding me of the endless possibilities of genuinely caring for a child.

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Lindsey Forsberg

What an amazing story. I am learning about the importance of PLC in my Masters class and I completely agree with you how important it is in our schools! PLC is very beneficial to all students and teachers. We can provide so much more for the students when we all come together and work as a team. Thank you for sharing!

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Kristen Rose

This is an awesome story. As a first grade teacher, I hope my students remember me as a positive influence in their life. I hope the work my school and district does in concerns to PLC's will show my students that their learning is my number one priority and I will never give up on them.

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Kathleen Meehan

Your story is a great example of why it is important for teachers to build relationships with students. Teachers do not always get to know what effect they have on a child but like Mrs. Dennis be the one person who makes that child feel important. So glad you had a Mrs. Dennis, and I hope every child out there will be lucky enough to have a teacher like Mrs. Dennis at least once in their time in school.

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A Luiz

Dana, thank you for sharing your post. It was quite inspirational. It would be wonderful to always remember that we do not know the impact we can have on students (really any child in our sphere of influence), and remember to help them to see how wonderful and unique each one is.

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Nivea Barbosa

Dear Dana,
I really enjoyed reading your inspiring post. This is the legacy I am craving for.

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Niki Holland

Thank you for your wonderful story. Your Mrs. Dennis reminds me of my second grade teacher, Mrs. Zellers. She took a child that was handicapped and taught her that she is capable of doing anything they put their mind too. She never let me give up on my dreams. I am a special education teacher and I try to instill this same determination into my students as she did for me. She is one of the many teachers that lead me to education. I hope that I can instill the thought that you can do anything as long as you put your mind to it. Thank you again for such an inspiring story.

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Shayne Grove

Thanks for your insight!

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Mahlaela Maishibe

This is truly wonderful! I also believe that for the problem someone can go through, is like a driving force leading you to the solutions to the entire world. Your experience has brought you to a profession where you are the best principal who knows what poverty is, and you are the resource person who went through some training that made you to know how to seek the best options fort the teachers and students under your care. Thanks for sharing your story.

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David Hoss

Dana, thanks for sharing your post. Inspiring thoughts to help all Principals think about how to kick off the start to a new school year. It's all about working together, asking questions, and always wanting to do your best!

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Mary Beth Licke

Thank you for sharing this touching and important message in your letter. The difference one can make is phenomenal as evidenced in your story. We all know of other stories that speak to this. I echo your important message about the power of teams impacting more widely and empowering each other to make the difference that is possible. I look forward to sharing this with my staff as well. As a former Kindergarten and first grade teacher and currently principal of a K-2 building I only hope that I touched someone's world the way Mrs. Dennis did for you. I have had many children touch my heart and remind me of my purpose and the possibilities for children. This is a terrific reminder for all educators as we prepare for our new year,new class and new teams! Thanks again.

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Geri Keskeys

Beautiful!! As a former first grade teacher I know it is one of the most important years in a child's life. You were blessed to have Mrs. Dennis. I also agree with you that the PLC time is best spent talking about how to meet the needs of all of our students as Mrs. Dennis was able to do by herself. Thank you for sharing this story. I hope you find her!

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Joshua Curnett

Thank you for your honesty and courage on the page. Your writing moved me; the students at your school (and in your world) are so very lucky to have a principal with your perspective. That you can so skillfully connect your very particular experience with the universal world of education and how kids need to be "seen" makes all the difference for your staff. Keep connecting the universal with the particular. You are great at it. Thanks again for your honesty and courage. Keep writing!

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Paul Farmer

Dana, Thanks so much for your post. Your Mrs. Dennis, sounds like my Mr. Kuhn in 10th grade. If it wasn't for him who knows what my world would look like to day.

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