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In Appreciation of Great Teachers

November 13, 2014

I love a good book.  And I love getting a good deal on one even better.  Half Price Books and I have a bit of a love affair going on.  I admit it.  I stray emotionally in my other relationships when I get in to that store and browse the cookbooks, the dictionaries, and the novels.  And, I think that Half Price Books loves me too.  Every year in October, they give me a discount card, entitling me to a bargain all year round.  Trust me, in teaching, there are very few perks.  It is the hardest job in which everyone is seemingly an expert.  Let’s be honest about something.  On the one hand, if it were as easy as having visited a doctor’s office a few times for us all to become doctors, we would all be doctors.  If though you are among those who think because you had been in a classroom as a student, then you are qualified to teach then you are able to achieve a level of miracle work that I cannot fathom and ask that you keep your distance from me.  (I am the jealous sort and I couldn’t handle your greatness, frankly.)  On the other hand, Half Price Books, they know how to treat a teacher right.  They lure us in with the promise of a good bargain by selling quality books at a reasonable price, and then they seal the deal with an additional discount.  It just makes you feel warm inside.

As I was shopping there recently, a former student of mine approached me to thank me for the understanding and compassion that I had shown in the classroom.  I teach a class that is required of most students transferring to the university nearby.  It is considered a gateway course—in essence, you can’t get in to a program at the university without having come through my classes first.  As I stood there at the checkout counter, with my Teacher’s Appreciation Discount Card in hand, I listened to how this person felt that even though she never mastered Spanish as I would have hoped, she did walk away with valuable lessons about learning and education.  She reminded me of how often I tell my students that higher education is as much about endurance as it is learning new material.  Being a good student takes perseverance, and just a bit of moxie.

Being a good student also takes someone who shows a little faith in you on a personal level.  A friend of mine on Facebook, Leslie, has helped me to track down one of my favorite teachers from my childhood.  Mrs. Nina Hansen.  Mrs. Hansen was my second grade teacher in 1980.  In the spirit of Teacher Appreciation, I have sent Mrs. Hansen a letter today to express my admiration for the hard work that she did on my behalf as a child.  Teachers never tire of hearing people tell them that they made a difference.  I thought I would share my letter here, and encourage you, my readers, to send a letter to one of your former teachers who made a difference.

James Grade 2

November 12, 2014

Dear Mrs. Hansen,

I trust that this letter finds you well and in good spirits as yet another Maine winter (all too) quickly approaches.  I can say that when I spoke with my father, Robert Wilson, just after Halloween and he recounted his tale of struggling to remove more than ten inches of heavy wet snow from the yard, I felt no pangs of homesickness whatsoever!  May you be in a well-insulated house, sheltered from the worst of the cold.

Before I go too far, please allow me to apologize in advance if this letter comes as an intrusion in to your peaceful retirement; if my sleuthing has led me in the right direction, you were formerly a primary school teacher for the MSAD #64.  I desire only to express my sincere thanks for a lifetime of fond memories and fine mentoring.  To that end, I hope you will accept this letter with my sincerest gratitude.

I grew up in (East) Corinth, Maine, and was a student at the Kenduskeag Elementary School from 1978 until 1981.  I was in 1980, the year Ronald Reagan swept his way in to Oval Office, a pupil in your second grade class, having come to you from Mrs. Gloria Hopkin’s first grade group.  (I will remind you that I was the only one in my class NOT to have voted for Reagan in the straw poll that fall; my parents could have joined the circus as ‘oddities’ for being Democrats in the very RED Corinth.  I still much prefer President Carter’s vision for a more just and fair world!)  My twin sister, Melissa, was in Mrs. Johnson’s class across the hall.

Second grade was a magical time.  In the classroom that year, we had visits from the nursing staff at the EMMC, a marine biologist who brought the ocean to us one day, and Bethel Dearborn (a delightful church friend of my grandmother) came with some regularity to share the gift of music with us.  I can’t hear the song “Let there be Peace on Earth” without being launched back in time to singing with Bethel, and seeing you grade papers at your desk in the back of the room.  Second grade was a time for exploration.  We were learning to read aloud smoothly and with expression; to work out new words independently; to lose ourselves in good books at least for a little while every day.  You had us keep a reading journal, to respond to the literature we had chosen from the collection of books in your classroom, the local Atkins Memorial Library, or from home where Mom kept a steady supply of reading material on hand.  When it appeared that the Ginn Level 8, where I had begun the year, proved not to be as challenging as I needed in order to keep my interest, you formed a small group from those of us in the class striving to do more and we read from a text called “The Purple Turtle”.  With two different curriculums at play in your classroom, you must have felt more like a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse; I know from experience that those feelings are real and exhausting.  I am, though, forever appreciative.

What I cherish most from that time when I was a student in your class was the way that you made me feel valued and encouraged me to be the best James Wilson I could be, to worry less about what the others around me expected me to be.  You encouraged me to find my own path to happiness.  Moreover, you wrote in my report card at the end of that year that you would miss me for two reasons:  first, because I was so eager to meet every new challenge, and secondly, because I was so dependable.  I would have done anything for you because you went out of your way to make me feel like being one of the “smart kids” was laudable, not something that should be reproached.

You gave us real lessons in living honestly and authentically.  My Mom truly made every effort to be there for us three kids (I also had an older brother, Todd).  She participated as chaperone on all school outings; she made cupcakes and other treats for any class bake sales we had.  She also tried to make sure that we ate well, even going so far as to send me to school with plates of celery sticks cut up and peanut butter stuffed in to their middles to share with my classmates when we had parties.  One day, Mom got a phone call from the school.  You were on the line, asking her if she were aware that I was not in the least interested in celery.  She admitted that she was unaware of this, and asked how you had ascertained the fact that I (still to this day) have an aversion for the stuff.  You replied, “Well, Mrs. Wilson, I have just now caught him burying some of it in the rocks out on the playground!”  Mom and I had a talk that night, at your behest, about being honest about things, about being willing to express one’s feelings.  She never sent celery to school with me again; I got apples (my favorite) after that.

More importantly still, you also encouraged (and expected) us to be good citizens—to believe that by working together, we could indeed make the world a better place for all.  In fact, I still have hanging in my office two little awards that you gave me that year—handmade signs of your appreciation.  They are framed now on field of blue with a hint of red trim around the openings.

 Citizenship Grade 2

In the years which have intervened since 1980, I have built a life for myself which I enjoy very much.  After graduating high school in 1991, I enrolled as a student at Middlebury College, a private liberal arts college in Vermont, where I specialized in French and Spanish literature with minors in sociology and religion.  I remained with Middlebury’s Language Schools where, under their rigorous auspices, I sought a Masters of Arts, later studying for a Doctorate of Modern Languages.  My studies led me to live in Paris, France, and Madrid, Spain for a period of years, and afforded me the opportunity to travel and see much of Europe.  I am forever changed as a result.

I began teaching in 1996.  I have taught the fourth grade, middle school, high school, and since 2000, I have been on the teaching faculty of a technical college in Madison, Wisconsin.  There, I give classes in Spanish mostly.  I live with my partner of 15 years, Gregory, in an old Victorian on the banks of Lake Monona in the heart of downtown Madison.  I am greeted each morning by the sounds of mallard ducks and Canadian geese out on the water; one would hardly know that I am in the center of a city almost four times as large as Portland, Maine (eight times as large as Bangor!).

My teaching style is unique from that of my colleagues.  I never managed to master the little square boxes of chronometered activities that my supervisors wanted me to use as a lesson plans.  I don’t teach language “one verb tense at a time”; I prefer to layer the exercises on so that they are more organic and build one upon the other.  I design lessons based on the “big picture”—my activities are planned for the whole unit and not for the date specific.  I encourage my students to build their language skills in meaningful contexts and in ways in which the language is actually spoken.

There isn’t a day that goes by in my job when I don’t think of you.  I encourage my students to do their best, to live up to their potential, and to think on their own.  I design lesson materials based on the students’ needs and not my own desire to have a well-structured plan book.  In short, I too teach in what seems like an open classroom, providing all the tools necessary for learning while demanding that my students rise to the challenge and take charge of their own learning.  My students write reading journals at times and practice reading aloud for smoothness and expression.  While they may be between the ages of 19 and 70 (since I teach nights), they are involved in many of the same exercises that you had us doing when in your class I was first learning to be a better reader.  I hope, in all of my efforts, that I, like you, can instill in my students a love of the written word, and for learning as a lifelong student.

You know only all too well how much those formative years of learning are crucial to the future of children, and also how little thanks comes from the job that you did for so many years.  Over time, I have had letters from former students who have felt changed by the work that I did with them, but they are rare.  If you’ll permit me, then, let me me be among those who celebrate the good work that you did, and for the positive and meaningful role you have played in my life—even almost thirty-five years later.

I wake up each morning and feel in my very core that I am no longer the eight year old boy with whom you were acquainted, but I hope that the spirit of good citizenship and love for learning that you shared with me then will be with me for the rest of my days.  I thank you for all of that, and more.

For all of those hundreds of kids whose lives you touched, but who have never taken the time to write and express their gratitude, know that I value the life lessons you shared with me, and wish you many more years of happy retirement.

Your forever pupil,


Grade 2 (2)

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