Saluting the Great Teachers I Have Known

With PTA Teacher Appreciation Week upon us, I find myself recalling the teachers I’ve had as a student, worked alongside as a colleague and heard about over the years.

When I think of appreciating great teachers and the work that they do, my memories focus on:

  • … the elementary school teacher, her children barely as tall as her hip, who appeared to effortlessly move around the classroom, knowing each child by name and need. No child was loved more or less because of their family’s money, or their intelligence, or how hard they worked. Just being a child in her presence was more than enough to earn her caring and love.
  • Brian P. Gatens issues a salute for PTA Teacher Appreciation Week… the caring teacher, always thinking of others, who took it upon himself to organize a food delivery program for homebound AIDS patients in the 1990s Bronx. And by doing so, he rallied the participation of hundreds of students, many from challenging home environments, and showed that by caring for others, it was OK to care about themselves.
  • … the mischievous teacher, whose room was always filled with laughter and activity, who may have missed the occasional administrative deadline, but never missed a child’s birthday or the opportunity to attend an after-school event. His tie might have been stained and his shirts wrinkled (no fashion sense at all), but he had a strong sense of what his children needed.
  • … the first-year teacher who, when faced with the tragedy of having a child lose their mother, found a way to put aside her own needs to care for her whole class. She bravely made it through the day and then was seen crying alone in her car in the teacher’s parking lot, all with her mother on the other end of the phone.
  • … the gruff, rarely smiling teacher whose love for students came out in high expectations and challenging work, but who never forgot that students arrive for school at different places in their lives and with different needs. She was known to crack the wry joke from time to time, but never admitted to it.
  • … the dedicated teacher so in love with his subject matter that students couldn’t help but come along for the ride. Radiating wonder and excitement, he continued his own learning alongside his students, and didn’t get caught up on the minutiae and maddening details of working inside a bureaucracy.
  • … the veteran teacher, old enough to be a parent to most of the staff, who never lost touch with what it was like to be confused in a subject matter. Hours and hours of time were spent during lunch and after school to bring the children forward in the class, all with no expectation of personal recognition or reward.
  • … the drama teacher, recognizing his class was often a necessary safe haven for the awkward and isolated, who fashioned an experience for all those who had the bravery to get up in front of others, to risk failing, and in doing so triumphed greatly. He believed the dramatic arts existed for the children on the stage, and not only for the experience of the audience.
  • … the physical education teacher, who never forgot that her class was meant for all students — not just those who could run the fastest or throw the deepest. She was wise enough to share her own athletic struggles to bring children along in their own growth, and would sometimes just roll the balls out and let the kids play.
  • … all those colleagues of mine whose consistent high expectations and kindness showed me what it means to be a teacher who will be remembered by students long after the test papers end up in the garbage, the ink dries on the diploma and the experiences of childhood fade into memory.

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Brian P. Gatens is the superintendent of schools for the Emerson Public School District in Emerson, New Jersey. He has been an educator for more than two decades, working at the K-12 level in public and private school settings in urban and suburban districts. In “From the Principal’s Office,” Gatens shares advice, provides insights, and gives guidance on everything from what principals look for when interviewing teaching candidates to how to work with overly protective parents. His front-line assessments supply candid perspectives on school life.

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