By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD
My daughter’s a teacher. In her first year out of college, she taught first grade, influencing the next generation. I don’t recall too much about my own first grade teacher. I do know I really liked her. Many times, my parents said Mrs. Frank gave me a great start in school, a strong foundation on which future teachers could build.
Another stellar educator who was highly influential was Miss Robinson, my fourth grade teacher. Our class was a challenge to her – a good challenge. Many of us had been in a “split” room the year before, with half third graders and half fourth graders. Once our third grade assignments were complete, we could do fourth grade work. The result was that Miss Robinson inherited a batch of students who had already mastered much of the fourth grade curriculum. She worked hard to provide us with additional lessons to keep us challenged, without similarly handicapping our fifth grade teacher.
We moved that summer, and I started a new school. I quickly realized three things. I was far ahead in math, hopelessly behind in grammar, and placed in the wrong class by the school secretary. However, teachers often give more attention to students on the fringes, both those with great promise and those who struggle. My understanding of things unknown by my peers, catapulted me to a position of prominence. As a result, my teacher gave me extra attention, while my classmates viewed me with academic awe. Although I didn’t learn much that year, I underwent a metamorphous of self-perception. Put succinctly, I began fifth grade as an above average student who felt average and ended the year as an above average student convinced he was exceptional. That single change in attitude altered the trajectory of my education – and my life. Yes, Mrs. Wedel influenced me immensely.
In seventh grade, I had Mr. Snow for English. He loved to teach and he loved seventh graders. He invested extra effort in me during lunch and after school, getting me caught up on my grammar. Our class read and studied, Dickens’ classic story, A Christmas Carol. Mr. Snow helped us dig into this timeless tale and mine its many truths. The conclusion was inescapable for me and equally profound. Like Dickens’ Scrooge, we have a choice on how we live our life; it can be for selfish purposes or it can be for the joy of living and the benefit of others. I chose the latter.
That year I also had Mr. Binder for science. He was a strict educator with high expectations – and I feared him – at least in class. However, he also faithfully served as my track coach for five years, where he functioned in a much different role and with significant influence on me. It was on the track where I learned many of life’s important issues and where I experienced my happiest moments as a teen. Although I wasn’t an athlete, athletic opportunities – via a highly effective coach – helped to shape me more than anything learned in the classroom.
In high school it was Mr. Grosser who affected me greatly. With a passion for molding young minds, he was part educator and part entertainer. In his class, the unexpected became routine. Sometimes he addressed the course material; at other times, he digressed. Regardless, he pushed us to think. His influence was significant and helped me mature as an individual and prepare for adulthood.
The standout mentor of my college years was Professor Britten. Intellectual and insightful, he communicated profundity with ease. I hung on every word. Nothing he said was wasted; everything had significance. I took his classes, not because of the subject, but because of the instructor.
These are some of the teachers who influenced me; they are the best of the best. Aside from academia, I have had many “teachers” in the business world as well. Although not educators, per se, they guided me to become the person I am today.
If you are a teacher, be encouraged that you are influencing others – even if you don’t know it. You may never be affirmed by those in your class, but you are making a difference, to every student, every year.
If you’re not a teacher, know that you, too, influence others. Whether a business owner, a manager, a supervisor, or a front-line employee, you influence those around you by what you do, the things you say, and how you treat others.
Like Scrooge, we can influence negatively by pursuing a life of selfish greed, or we can influence positively by choosing to make a difference in the lives of others. Although they may seldom thank us for our influence in their lives, we are making a lasting impact.