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What Really Great Teachers Do For Their Kids

Photograph by Twenty20

About 12 years ago, I got a phone call from a woman I'd done some freelance curriculum writing for, offering me a job. It was more than a job, really—it was kind of a career leap, a major challenge that I initially shied away from. Very few people involved had faith in her choice at the time, but she insisted I was right for it, that I could do it.

She said she would help guide me. I trusted her, and she was right. In the end it was one of my most fulfilling professional experiences, and it helped me realize a new level of capacity, both professionally and interpersonally.

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Before entering educational publishing, my mentor at that time was a teacher, a principal, a literacy expert. Although no longer a teacher, she had done for me what educators should do for their students: she saw my potential, even when I didn't, and helped me reach it.

I had teachers throughout my school years who did the same for me. I also had teachers who put me in another box and decided not to invest more than they had to. Even as a 43-year-old woman, I remember the impact of both.

Children like to be seen individually, not only in terms of how far off the map they are from what is considered ideal behaviour or grade-level academic achievement.

And it wasn't because I was a well-behaved kid for some teachers and a "bad" kid for others. I was always the same kid with the same abilities. Some teachers knew what to do with that more effectively than others.

My family had dinner last summer at the house of my 7th-grade English teacher. My husband asked him whether he'd known my mother, who had died before I met my husband. "Oh yes," my former teacher said. "Let's just say I met with Tracy's parents many times." I pushed boundaries then, but he could see me for what I was, and he saw potential in me.

I had a math teacher in high school—by far my worse subject—who was very encouraging of my poetry.

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Another high school teacher once told me she was amazed that it always seemed I wasn't going to do any work at all and, in the end, I'd come through fine, and she was relieved because she'd been rooting for me. Yet another warned me to "get my shit together." He meant well.

Children like to be seen individually, not only in terms of how far off the map they are from what is considered ideal behaviour or grade-level academic achievement.

Last year, I found a report card of mine from the first grade in which the teacher had written that I was "a pleasure to have in the classroom," always "explaining concepts to those who didn't understand" and that I was a "joy." Looking at it now, I can see it was my own mother's handwriting. She wanted me to feel special, even though the teacher had left the comments blank.

She didn't see a disruptive kid, a child who can't listen or sit still. She saw an independent, artistic spirit. She saw my daughter.

My daughter just started preschool—in the Netherlands, where we live, children start school as soon as they turn 4, whenever in the year that is. She's having a tougher time than I expected adjusting to having to sit still and listen.

She's very social, very bubbly, not at all shy. But I can see that having to do as she's told is going to be a struggle. Yet her teacher is beyond patient. She has encouraged "play dates," let's my daughter sit on her lap if she's sad, eases her into things.

She's high energy and falls down a lot as a consequence of wanting to do everything right now really fast. Last year, I took my daughter to ballet lessons, and I saw a similar struggle. You have to stand where you're told, move as you're instructed. She said she just wanted to do "fast dancing," and was frequently scolded. She quit.

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During the dancing, I took a photo of her with her tutu over her chest, doing some sort of clogging dance and looking happy as ever. I posted it on Facebook and last week received a gift in the mail.

My former boss from 12 years back, now retired, has taking up water-coloring. She saw the photo of my daughter and made a painting based on it. She didn't see a disruptive kid, a child who can't listen or sit still. She saw an independent, artistic spirit. She saw my daughter.

As school winds down for the year, I wanted to thank all educators who take the time to see their students, to help them work with who they are to be the best they can be. They won't forget you.

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Artwork by Celia Burger

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