As students head back to school this year, Bill, an 82-year-old widower, grieves the loss of his wife. What do the two have in common? Teachers.
I recently received a letter and small package from Bill that began with, “Your website inspired me to send you a first draft of one of my short stories…”
I immediately thought this was one of many requests I receive from people who want me to help market their work.
But I was dead wrong.
What Bill wanted was to share a message about the important role of teachers – a message of how childhood teachers and role models influence us throughout our lives. “After 82 years,” he said, “I speak with a little experience to back this up!”
“Our minds are beautiful instruments,” Bill wrote. “I wanted you to see how the work you are dedicated to can deliver results that few would ever imagine.”
Bill had written and charmingly illustrated a children’s story about a hippopotamus. He sent me his story, complete with several original drawings, including this one of the main character.
But the real story was about how Bill perceived the immeasurable and enduring role of teachers – how a Seattle librarian in 1939 helped kids like Bill discover the creative genius inside themselves.
73 years later, Bill remembers Miss Winnerblad’s influence on his life – how she helped him find pleasure in books and nurtured his creativity and humor. “Even though I was never a good student,” Bill admitted, “I became a professional artist, designer, inventor, and author.”
Bill claims his success in life was greatly influenced by Miss Winnerblad. And now, following the death of his wife of 45 years, Bill realizes how his painting and writing helps him through the pain of grief. He inches forward by using his creative mind.
“What I am learning,” Bill said, “is how creating art helps the brain heal its wounds. I am also learning that putting words together into text does much the same.”
How many teachers ever stop to ponder the lifelong impact they have on children?
Yet, according to many researchers and psychologists, influencing lifelong learning is precisely the role of teachers. Alfie Kohn exemplifies this thinking in the article, “Who’s Asking?” He claims that teachers unleash the power of intrinsic motivation when they encourage students to ask their own questions.
Questions that are motivated from within are an essential part of schooling, according to Kohn. These kinds of questions develop students’ lifelong ability to develop “as participants in a democracy and as human beings.”
Bill is still asking his own questions and seeking answers at 82-years-old. This is a remarkable testament to his education as a child.
Children are more than simple readers of books and consumers of facts. They are constantly creating stories and knowledge within themselves that determine who they become as adults.
Can the role of teachers and the value they bring to a child's learning process be measured by test scores? No.
Their value is measured qualitatively, through the challenges and obstacles their students overcome in a lifetime. It is measured in our abilities to move life forward in purposeful directions and to believe in ourselves – no matter what.
Bill’s story would not have been the same without the inspiration of Miss Winnerblad.
Is there a teacher in your life who inspired you to become your best self, who helped you continue to learn throughout your lifetime?
For me, it was Miss Cabot, my sixth grade teacher. She nurtured my curiosity. She made me realize that the question was more important than the answer – the journey more important than the final chapter. I did my first research paper for Miss Cabot. And in some form, I’ve been a researcher ever since!
The greatest role of teachers has always been and will continue to be their ability to guide, facilitate, and inspire learning.
And learning is something we never stop doing, at any age.
Thanks, Bill, for reminding all those committed to developing youth that it is indeed a most worthwhile investment of time, energy, and love.
Kohn, A. (2015). Who's Asking? Educational Leadership, 73(1), 16-22.
Marilyn Price-Mitchell, PhD, is the author of Tomorrow’s Change Makers: Reclaiming the Power of Citizenship for a New Generation. A developmental psychologist and researcher, she works at the intersection of positive youth development and education.
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©2016 Marilyn Price-Mitchell. All rights reserved. Please see reprint guidelines for Marilyn’s articles.