Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Small Things That Change Lives: How Teachers Make a Difference

NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams has a weekly feature, focusing on people who have made a difference in other people's lives. Sometimes it's a tennis program. Sometimes it's food outreach. Whatever the story, it's always something very uplifting and very feel-good. My local NBC affiliate also does the same type of story, under the same moniker, but that feature is more sporadic.

Every day, though, teachers make a difference, and in this time when teachers are seen as incompetent and lazy, and when we are being blamed for societal ills and failing students and schools, I wanted to use this column to provide some positive affirmation, something beyond that bumper sticker cliché of "If You Can Read This, Thank a Teacher." After all, teaching goes beyond the classroom, beyond our instruction, and beyond the love of words.

So in the spirit of the classroom, let me ask teachers reading this to do the following:

If you've ever lent a student lunch money, raise your hand.

If you've ever given a student a ride home, raise your hand.

If you've ever lent a student a book, raise your hand.

If you've ever given a student school supplies, raise your hand.

And these are just a few of the things teachers do. I could go on and on. I've passed out quarters for milk, gone through boxes of pencils, provided endless boxes of tissue, supplied hand sanitizer and such. I have fed my students popcorn when they've forgotten lunch and refused for me to spot them — but sharing a microwaved bag of popcorn is quite okay. In my school district, the local chapter of the NEA has a foundation called Friends of Children. That group has provided hot meals and clothing to down-on-their luck kids and their families. That group has paid rent to keep families from becoming homeless and paid security deposits for others. At my school, we make sure kids have hot food, even if they don't qualify for state or federal aid.

We know that poverty has an impact on learning, and providing a helping hand is just the start. Teachers also make connections with their students. We find out about who is being bullied and we take steps to stop it. We make our classrooms safe places for those whose orientations might be different from the rest. We are front line on child abuse, being mandatory reporters. You suspect it — you report it.

Even those students who come from seemingly problem-free lives need their teachers. They need to belong and to be loved. Each student needs to know he or she is important and that he or she has something to contribute. I'm not talking about falsely nurturing self-esteem (we're all winners!) but rather showing kids that they all have unique strengths and talents and that each student, no matter his strengths or talents, has value. We model how to treat others.

When I was in sixth grade, I went to Mary Queen of Peace School in Webster Groves, Missouri. My parents divorced when I was in fourth grade, and my mother became a single mom who somehow made ends meet and who managed to keep us in our same school. Christmas came, and with it Secret Santa. All the kids participated, and I asked to be excused.  Instead, my teacher told me she needed a helper, and I worked in her classroom shelving books and doing other odd jobs after school. I earned $5 — enough money to buy my Secret Santa recipient the coveted book of Life Savers and a few other things. This money, such a small amount to me now, was huge then, and kept me from being ostracized and the only kids not involved. Miss Susie Moore made a difference.

Aug. 31, I lost Peter Waggoner, a 2007 Francis Howell graduate and one of those rare kids who gets under your skin. After joining the U.S. Army, a career and job he loved, he came back to visit me every time he went on leave. We'd kept in touch through letters and Facebook during his two tours of Iraq, and when his unit got adopted on the second tour, I sent over all sorts of goodies to a unit he found for me.  Sadly, Peter took his own life, a few days after his 25th birthday and less than a month before his one-year anniversary of his honorable discharge. At his memorial, I took his mother's hands in mine and introduced myself as his English teacher. She told me, "You're the author. Peter talked about you all the time."

I'm telling you this not to brag on myself, but rather to remind teachers that you make a difference every day. Peter made a C or a B in my class — I don't really remember — but I can tell you he wasn't one of those A students who make your life easy. He was a handful. He read one of my romance novels so that he could write his required book report over that, because that was the type of thing he would do just to keep me on my toes.

I keep in touch with many of my former students via Facebook, all the way back to the class of 1993. They remind me why I do what I do, and why I love teaching. They remind me that — even when times get tough like when my English class all fails something and I have to go rethink my instruction, or when the politicians say that 50 percent of my performance should come from one state test — my former students remind me that I make a difference. They remind me there is much more to education than a test that 20 years later doesn't mean much, that education is also about the day-to-day small things that change lives. So please, teachers, remember that you, too, make a difference. In the end, that's what really counts.

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Michele Dunaway is an award-winning English and journalism teacher who, in addition to teaching English III, advises the student newspaper, yearbook and news website at Francis Howell High School in St. Charles, MO. In 2009, the Journalism Education Association awarded Michele with its Medal of Merit. She has received recognition as a Distinguished Yearbook Adviser in the H.L. Hall Yearbook Adviser of the Year competition and was named a Special Recognition Newspaper Adviser by the Dow Jones News Fund. She also practices what she teaches by authoring professional journal articles and writing novels. Click here to read more articles by Michele Dunaway.