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Unsung Heroes: Community Members Remember Teachers Who Changed Their Lives


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Graphic by JB Loucks

At a time when some teachers can make more money tutoring than teaching, it feels lucky to have a teacher who changed your life.

Teachers received new attention as they were asked to guide children through a global pandemic. Teachers accept low salaries, unpaid work, and lack of support. Some are pushing back against the martyrdom that is expected to be a good teacher. As a new generation struggles to staff schools, we remember what a profound impact that teachers can have.

No Child Left Behind

“I want to make sure you graduate high school,” Maria Hill remembers her high school teacher telling her. “We’re going to do this together.”

Mr. McCormick noticed Hill carried a breast pump with her to his senior business management class. She was returning to high school after giving birth to her daughter Jasmine.

Maria Hill had her daughter Jasmine during her junior year of high school. Photo courtesy of Maria Hill.

“He would be able to tell just by looking at a kid if something was wrong,” Hill said.

She remembers him always scanning the hallway, reading the kids’ body language. He would often pull kids aside and ask them if they were okay.

“He was overall just a thoughtful, wonderful teacher,” Hill said. “I do remember him teaching lessons; but for the most part, I just remember him talking about his life.”

When Hill returned to high school she was very behind. Her teacher worked hard to help her graduate high school on time, Hill said. He always asked how Jasmine was doing.

“I’m very happy he came into my life because I was struggling a lot within myself and as a person,” Hill said. “I had thought about dropping out of high school so many times. After I had Jasmine, I just wanted to go to work and be with my kid. I feel like he came in at the right time, at the right place.”

Years later Hill returned to her high school to thank him, but found out that he passed away from a brain tumor.

“He influenced and touched so many peoples’ lives,” Hill said. “I will always be grateful for him just pulling me aside and talking to me and saying that he wanted to make sure that I graduated and he would help me in any way possible. I’ve never had a teacher pull me aside and ask me how I’m doing.”

The high school opened a coffee shop in his name.

“He would talk to us like we were adults, not like kids in high school,” Hill said. “He would expect us to act like adults, to give him that same respect. Whenever he was talking everyone would pay attention to him. There wouldn’t be talking during class, or people being rude.”

Maria Hill poses with daughter Jasmine. Photo courtesy of Maria Hill.

Running for Rossi

During high school Daniele Gold’s mom and brother passed away within a year of each other.

“I was skipping classes,” Gold said. “I was doing a lot of nonsense things that I probably should not have been doing. I was not really forming real relationships with anyone, especially adults. You could see it reflected in my behavior at school: sleeping through everything, talking off to teachers, treating them horribly.”

Her Spanish teacher, who she would like to remain anonymous, allowed her to draw in class, have extra time on assignments and allowed her to do alternative assignments to bring her grades up.

“I had this one teacher who saw that I was acting differently and doing things differently and going through this really tough time,” Gold said. “She slowly started to get into my life and ask me what was going on.”

She helped her after school and the two bonded over snacks.

“We talked about life, and she would help me with my grades,” Gold said. “She got me really motivated to do things, and eventually we talked about my mom.”

She was preparing for a run in Florida and asked if she could run it in honor of Gold’s mom. She made t-shirts with her mom’s last name on the back.

“She was the only teacher who ever saw me for more than just a sh*thead teen,” Gold said. “She gave me support that friends and parents couldn’t—an outside source of support that I had never had and that nobody was willing to give me. She was able to look past all of my teen rebellion, and see the good in me for the first time.”

Her teacher helped her get into college, wrote her a recommendation letter and was a big deciding factor in Gold minoring in Spanish.

“I still think about her all the time; and now I’m a teacher,” Gold said. “There’s always that one who makes a difference, and she helped me want to do that for other people for sure.”

Daniele Gold still has the T-shirt her Spanish teacher wore as a tribute to her mom. Photo courtesy of Daniele Gold.

Unsung Hero

Nima Parikh attributes much of her success to her 11th grade Honors English teacher.

As a typical honors student who did well in writing, Parikh wasn’t used to being pushed beyond where she was academically.

“She called out things that I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a teacher calling out in my writing,” Parikh said. “It’s not that I got dinged for not being at this other level, but she just made me more cognizant of how much better writing can be with simple things.”

Ms. Brennan pushed Parikh to switch up the melody of her sentence structure, to be more descriptive, concise, and to use her senses.

“I had never even thought about looking at writing that way,” Parikh said.

Ms. Brennan encouraged all types of communication. Empowered to enter in a speech competition, Parikh won district, county, and was an alternate for state.

“I was a typical Indian immigrant kid headed toward math and science,” Parikh said. “She completely changed the trajectory for me because I really enjoyed writing. I really enjoyed public speaking, which is something I built a whole business on now.”

Ms. Brennan taught Parikh that communication is a powerful tool, which led to outstanding communication skills during undergraduate school, graduate school, and a consultant job.

“I may not have always had the deepest knowledge base in the room but because I can write well, I did well,” Parikh said. “Every step of the way, it gave me a jump. Every job that I had those communication skills always helped set me apart from my colleagues, so that I was always able to progress a little faster, get a little more recognized.”

Parikh imparts these same lessons to her own children. “I still talk about her,” Parikh said. “I still talk about how it all changed with her.”

‘‘I still talk about her. I still talk about how it all changed with her.’’

As editor-in-chief of her school’s yearbook, Parikh and other students dedicated the yearbook to Ms. Brennan during their senior year.

“There’s a lot of teachers out there that I think start off with this passion for what they can offer students, and then they sometimes get disillusioned,” Parikh said. “She was someone who truly loved what she did, and it came through in how she taught. She didn’t talk down to her students. She didn’t seem to separate us as teacher and students. It always seemed like we were just kind of in this classroom together and she just seemed like someone we were listening to, but not necessarily an authority figure.”

Ms. Brennan visited with students in her classroom well after hours.

“She was so flabbergasted when we presented her with the yearbook,” Parikh said. “I don’t think she even knows what an impact she has on all the kids. Hopefully she’s still teaching. I don’t think [teachers] get their just rewards, to be honest. They’re kind of the unsung heroes, when you get a really good one. It just shows the potential that all of these teachers have. It has such an impact on even just one kid’s life.”

Connection Through Awkward Times

Abby Breeser is a confident young adult preparing to move across the country to attend college in Oregon. Teaching her from 5th to 8th grade, Mr. Nander encouraged Breeser to be confident and authentic.

Abby Breeser (left) is close with her middle school teacher Mr. Nander (right). Photo courtesy of Abby Breeser.

“He made an effort to make a connection with every student,” Breeser said. “He influenced confidence (sic) in me. I talked to him about all my problems. He was like my personal therapist.”

A high achiever, Breeser sometimes pushed herself too hard. “He pushed me to be my best,” Breeser said. “I put a lot of pressure on myself. His pushing me to be my best wasn’t at the same level as my own. I feel like I always pushed myself to be way more than I was capable of.”

He encouraged her to take breaks and do what she could.

“In middle school I tried to be someone I wasn’t,” Breeser said. “The people I was friends with in middle school, I don’t think I really should have been friends with. There were other people who would have meshed with me better. He saw that and talked to me about being myself, and he still does now.”

They still talk and Mr. Nander attended her high school graduation party.

“He’s just such a good role model for me growing up,” Breeser said. “Middle school is hard; but he was just so good at teaching middle school. He was so good at personally connecting with you throughout the most awkward times.”

They still joke about when Breeser joked she didn’t believe in dinosaurs when she was 10.

“He still holds that over my head,” Breeser said. “I believe in dinosaurs now. Please don’t judge 10-year-old me.”

Validation

Libbie Urwiler remembers two teachers who recognized and validated her mental health in high school. She would like them to remain anonymous.

Her history teacher had long hair and traveled everywhere, the stereotypical hippie guy.

“I swear he went easy on me just so I could pass the class and make it to the final test,” Urwiler said. “He knew I had my own problems, but I’d figured a lot of them out and better coping mechanisms for them by senior year.”

‘‘He knew I had my own problems, but I’d figured a lot of them out and better coping mechanisms for them by senior year.”

She remembers hanging back in class. Her history teacher nonchalantly asked her why people self-harm.

“It was a weirdly sort of wholesome way to talk about it; like I could tell he was just curious,” Urwiler said. “It was kind of comforting to know he noticed I was having difficulties and that he also seemed to notice that I was doing better.”

Another teacher who made an impression was her English teacher. He edited his students’ college essays. Urwiler wrote about overcoming depression and how it had negatively impacted high school and how she was doing better and ready to go to college with a different mindset.

After class he asked how she was doing. Urwiler shared that she had a therapist, a psychiatrist and supportive parents to help her.

“Since then he let me turn things in late knowing I would get them done. I just had a hard time with deadlines for English papers,” Urwiler said.

A zen Buddhist, he taught a class on Zen Buddhist Poetry class at the high school.

Overcoming Barriers

Danielle Sparkman works as a behavioral aid for children on the autism spectrum. She hopes to get into personal training. As a role model herself, Sparkman remembers one of her role models.

Ms. Breslin taught Sparkman for all four years of high school.

“She changed my life by showing me the bright side of everything and that my barrier in life didn’t define me,” Sparkman said. “My choice to overcome them is what defines me. Without her influence I probably wouldn’t be able to keep a job or I wouldn’t believe in myself that I could be a productive adult.”

Ms. Breslin worked with at-risk teens.

“She changed my perspective on not only how I work, but how everybody has a different background and it’s important to see past their actions and behaviors and see what causes them,” Sparkman said. “She really set me up to show people that they can overcome things.”

‘‘She changed my life by showing me the bright side of everything and that my barrier in life didn’t define me.’’

Role Model

Heather McWain still fondly remembers her second grade teacher.

“She has always stuck with me because honestly she’s the reason why I wanted to become a teacher,” McWain said. “She was just so kind. She really made sure everyone was safe. Even though everyone learned differently, she accommodated everyone for that.”

As soon as McWain received her first email account in middle school, she reached out to Ms. Hudson. They kept in touch and are still Facebook friends. McWain, who is now a teacher, planned to student teach with with Ms. Hudson, but things didn’t work out. She hopes to one day go back and observe her classroom.

When McWain was in Ms. Hudson’s class she struggled with speech and reading.

“She really took the effort to make sure, as with everyone else, that I wouldn’t get made fun of ever,” McWain said.

McWain hopes to be a teacher like Ms. Hudson to her students, she said. When McWain has hard days teaching, she remembers what an impact teachers can have on their students. It makes the harder aspects of the job worth it for her.

“I feel like that’s where my love for teaching came because I saw how much she loved it,” McWain said.

“She really took the effort to make sure, as with everyone else, that I wouldn’t get made fun of ever.’’

Drop Out

Most teachers make an impact for the content they teach their students. Jake Tucker fondly remembers his art teacher’s role in him dropping out of college.

Tucker didn’t attend many classes at his college. When he was in class he was falling asleep or listening to music. He struggled to complete assignments and do homework, he said.

His art teacher, who he would like to remain anonymous, asked to meet with him after he stopped attending classes. Tucker confided in her that school drains him, and how he wanted more time to create. He talked with other teachers about his discontentment.

“Everyone’s mind set was to say stay in school and finish your degree,” Tucker said.

His art teacher had a different take.

“You’ve already answered your own question,” Tucker remembers her saying. “You don’t want to be here. If you’re not willing to put in the effort, why are you here?”

Within months, Tucker dropped out and started his music, gaming, and merch business, Off the Radar.

It’s hard to deny that teachers are a guiding hand to our society. The pandemic reminded us of their importance. As some teachers are stepping away from teaching due to the extra burdens the pandemic created, we remember what a crucial role teachers play in our lives, with low salaries and high expectations.

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