What Every Student Knows: Memorable Teachers Change Lives

Do you have to have a crush on your teacher to fall in love with a subject?

Posted Feb 16, 2018

What you remember about your teachers might have little connection to the lessons they’d planned.

When my husband brushes up against me in the kitchen, or as we’re unloading groceries from the car, he’ll refer to those unexpected encounters as “Miss Squillante” moments.

Miss Squillante was his third-grade teacher. She was the first adult female to capture his romantic imagination. In that imagination, he brushed up against his pretty young teacher without her knowing; these were the dreams of the elementary school child who from an early age had an eye for Italian women. That she was lively, clever, and kind was also a big part of it.

More than 60 years later, Michael still invokes his teacher in a way Miss Squillante might not recognize. The tiny flame is still there, like a votive candle to the innocent desires of a schoolboy.

After more than 30 years in the classroom, I still model myself on the teacher I had for first and second grades: Mrs. Pruitt was the most welcoming, most generous, and most creative teacher a bright little girl from an uneducated family could have.

My parents were both forced to leave school after the eighth grade and remained as intimidated by teachers as they were by priests. They walked my brother and me to the gates and hoped we’d be improved by the time they came to pick us up.

But Mrs. Pruitt saw in the dark, messy-haired, and grubby little kid I was an appetite for learning so profound that I’d skip snack time for a chance to sit close to her desk and draw pictures under her watchful eye.

Having no children, Mrs. Pruitt once cheerfully told me that if she’d had a daughter, she’d her want to her be like me. I think I was 6 years old when she told me that — she might have been all of 40 — and I doubt that more than two-dozen words have carved themselves into my heart more deeply than hers.

In high school, an English teacher named Willa Garnick offered me a haven of intelligent, useful sympathy after my mother’s illness and death. Mrs. Garnick gave me practical advice and suggested I speak to other adults; she insisted that I needn’t carry the burden of tragedy on my shoulders alone, which I wouldn’t have believed if she hadn’t demonstrated the truth of it through her own actions.

College professors? They were different. You only saw them once or twice a week. Unless you deliberately tunneled into their faculty warrens and found them running frantically on intellectual wheels of their own devising, you could avoid contact.

But if you looked for them and were willing to prove your value (or show your potential), most professors would return the attention with interest.

I was lucky. Many of my professors were worth seeking out.

Early on, I had crushes on a few of the men in front of the lecture hall. They seem to embody everything desirable about the academic world. 

But it was the women in the academy who changed my life: They taught me that you didn’t have to fall for the person leading the discussion, but that you yourself could be initiating and orchestrating it.

You didn't have to fall in love with the teacher. You could fall in love with the subject and become the teacher.

Like good teachers and professors, good students are memorable and transformative. Hundreds of my former students are now teachers, principals, researchers, and scholars; in a very real sense, they’ve become my colleagues.

Kerri B., a 2011 UConn graduate who became part of Teach For America and is now a high school teacher in Massachusetts, recently posted on her Facebook page that she’d just had her best teaching day, because she “witnessed the moment of the irrevocable — when a student finds THAT book, the one we’ve all had, the book that first made us hungry, rattled our core and gave us permission to think for ourselves.” She posted a photo of her 10th grader's color-coded notes and wrote, “This is nothing you could assess with a multiple choice question — just a kid, a book and endless possibility.”

I asked friends on Facebook and other social media for memories of their teachers, and hundreds replied. Even if no one mentioned Miss Squillante, Mrs. Pruitt or Mrs. Garnick by name, their ineffable presence was everywhere. Almost everybody has a version of the great teacher. The best taught us reading, writing, math — and that the world is full of endless possibility.