The Power of Teachers

The power of great teachers.

My 11th-grade typing teacher died in April. I know this because I subscribe to my high school’s memorial page on Facebook, which lets alumni know when classmates or instructors have passed away. 

I had chosen typing as an elective. My dad being a preacher, his manual typewriter was always clattering in our house as he produced his sermons, and I thought typing would be a cool skill to have. It seemed impossible to learn, especially having your pinkies remember to hit the “a’’ and “colon’’ keys. But I did it. 

And so three months ago, I felt compelled to go on the memorial page and leave this tribute to my typing instructor: “I had taken the course almost on a lark because, who knew—I might need typing one day. Turns out I became a journalist and it became a critical tool of the trade. And, wow, I can still type really fast. Thank you, Ms. Smith.’’

As I was putting together this month’s 50 Most Powerful People issue and thought about the real definition of power, I recalled Ms. Smith and other teachers who were instrumental in my life, although I didn’t realize it when I was taking their classes. There was the humanities instructor who piqued my interest in unfamiliar authors and blew the class away when he ferried us 150 miles to a professional production of Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke. The English teacher who made students perform literary readings in front of the class (although prone to stage fright, I absolutely nailed The Ransom of Red Chief by O. Henry). The audio-visual teacher whose third period consisted of students scurrying from room to room setting up rickety projectors so classes could watch films. You were graded on that, and it taught me a lot about handling pressure, as when a film snapped in mid-reel and students snickered while you sweated to rethread it.

And then there was my botany and zoology teacher, who broke away from the textbook to lead our class in studies about the greenhouse effect and global warming, decades before it was something people really worried about. She also allowed us to watch the Senate Watergate hearings on TV because, even though they had nothing to do with botany or zoology, they had everything to do with history being made.

After a brief Internet search a decade ago, I located her. She was teaching at a university in North Carolina. “You may not remember me…’’ my email began. I went on to write that hers was one of my favorite classes because she encouraged students to be independent thinkers and that her dedication had made a great impact on my life. 

A couple of hours later came the reply. It read, in part: “This is the nicest thing anyone has ever written to me. Of course, I remember you!’’

That exchange taught me that you should never hesitate to tell someone how important he or she has been to you, particularly a teacher. Good teachers are gold, and it doesn’t take a lot of effort to let them know that, whether they taught you decades ago or are the individuals educating your children today. Just a heartfelt note will do. 

Because in a world full of powerful people, it just might be that teachers are the most powerful of all.

Categories: Column