ROCKFORD, ILL. — When more than 200 of my high school classmates and their spouses gather for a reunion on a late-summer weekend, we have a lot of catching up to do. Spirited conversations fill the country club as party-goers trade details on everything from careers and retirement to travel, children, and grandchildren.
Here and there, talk sometimes turns to another subject as well: appreciation and affection for long-ago teachers and classes. One friend recalls a favorite social-studies teacher. Another speaks fondly of a journalism adviser. A man praises a science teacher. Still another classmate expresses admiration for the example a coach set on and off the playing field.
If only teachers could hear these tributes to their lasting influence on students' lives.
What makes a memorable teacher? Knowledge of the subject ranks high, of course. But enthusiasm, patience, kindness, encouragement, and good discipline also exert powerful influences.
The praise these reuniongoers offer echoes comments other former students make in a newsletter e-mailed weekly to thousands of graduates who attended local high schools over the years. Almost every issue includes someone's remembrance of a favorite teacher.
One contributor praises a longtime English teacher, Miss McGuire. "It was she who inspired me to be an English major," the woman writes. "She, more than anyone, prepared me for college-level courses."
A long-ago graduate singles out a music instructor. "Miss Needham was one of the kindest teachers I ever met," he writes. Another contributor offers a similar appreciation: "Ms. Tinson, an English teacher, was always kind and made me feel so at ease whenever I went to her with questions."
A former high school choir director, Mr. Lundstrom, also draws praise: "Lindy's faith in me to sing 1st soprano really launched my confidence in more solo singing, and I have sung for many weddings, funerals, and special programs since that time."
One man singles out a social studies teacher as "the most influential teacher I ever had." He adds, "He continually challenged his students to stop and think about the way things were and the way they could be. Thanks, Mr. Alex, for helping me think outside the box."
Recalling his senior English teacher, a man writes, "After my first year at college, I came back to thank Ms. Crawford for preparing me so well. She cried."
Other students regret not expressing their appreciation.
Describing a favorite English teacher, a woman tells the newsletter, "When she read Chaucer, her whole demeanor changed. I loved it. I can still quote what she had us memorize. I only wish I had had the chance later to tell her how much I enjoyed her and her class."
As a new school year begins, teachers and students alike hope for a satisfying, productive year. At a time when many educators think they are more likely to be criticized than commended, the praise from reunioners and newsletter contributors offers an example for current students and parents. How many teachers might be encouraged to stay in the classroom longer, instead of seeking other careers, if they received a few more words of appreciation and admiration for a job well done?
A long-ago bumper sticker offers a gentle reminder, still timely: "Have you thanked a teacher today?"