Which teacher(s) changed your life?

By Caitlin Kelly

I went back to my Toronto high school, (the same one Margaret Atwood attended), yesterday to guest lecture about what it’s like to write for a living. But if it hadn’t been for the powerful encouragement of my English teachers there — Mr. Bullen and Mr. Bickell, one who has since died and one retired — would I even have become a writer?

Or felt as confident of my choice?

From my earliest years, I was winning awards for my writing, a clue that this might be a good choice for me vocationally. We look to teachers, for better or worse, for adult appraisals of our talents and skills. A cruel or indifferent teacher can crush us, (and often does), pushing us away from a life we might have enjoyed or thrived in had we simply ignored them.

Our teachers, from early childhood on, leave powerful and lasting impressions on who we are and what we might become.

English: Teachers from the Exploratorium's Tea...
English: Teachers from the Exploratorium’s Teacher Institute examine the “String Thing” they built. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Like you, I suspect, I can still name my grade school teachers and some of their quirks, like Miss Dalton, ferocious and Irish, who taught us to memorize the shape of countries by tracing their borders with carbon paper or Miss Brough, (rhymes with rough!), who had us use dictionaries in Grade Eight to read The Scarlet Letter. Every fresh paragraph meant flipping it open to find a new word — but she taught us never to fear the unfamiliar.

My ninth-grade English teacher, in my most turbulent and unhappy year at private school, left the most lasting impression of all. She was tall, strikingly beautiful, with long, thick black hair and single. Unlike most our ancient, widowed or never-married staff, she offered a vision of someone we might like to become.

I was a mess then: angry, lonely, in trouble all time. Yet she was kind to me and treated me with the same attention as the better–behaved students in her class, for which I was miserably grateful.

In high school, bullied, I was difficult again. This time it was Ana, (we could — daringly — first-name her!), our Yugoslav art teacher, who added joy, beauty and humor to our tedious suburban Toronto days.

I ran into her years later and she introduced me, affectionately, to a fellow teacher’s wife: “This is Caitlin. She was always pain in ass.” True.

But she loved me anyway and, like Ms. Z.,  had still welcomed me into her classroom, her compassion and calm a needed refuge for me.

English: A special education teacher assists o...
English: A special education teacher assists one of her students. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In their classrooms, I was allowed to be all of me: smart, sassy, funny, difficult. There were consequences, but there was also badly-needed comfort, acceptance and encouragement of a messy, creative complicated girl.

Great teachers see the pilot lights that flicker within us, that of our possibility and potential, sometimes long before we even know it’s there. They help us ignite the flame of our passion — for biology or German or computers or watercolors — that may light and warm us, possibly for decades to come.

A great teacher can also help us grow (up) emotionally and intellectually, can show us a different, perhaps more useful or social or interesting way of being or thinking or behaving than what we see inside our own families or amongst our peers.

My husband, Jose, is a photo editor at The New York Times, and helped them win a Pulitzer prize for photos taken on 9/11. He’s photographed the Olympics, three Presidents, war, Superbowls.

He was once, though, a minister’s son in Santa Fe, modestly expecting, and expected to become a teacher, as had many of his relatives.

But in tenth grade a teacher saw some photos he had taken for the high school yearbook. Mrs. Frank told him he had talent and should consider pursuing it as a career; when some of his basketball photos ended up in the local paper, that was it.

Career chosen!

I’ve done a fair bit of teaching — at the undergraduate college level, and to adults. I love it. It’s such a thrill when students “get it.”

Here’s a powerful and moving video about a teacher in Los Angeles — faced with suicide attempts by fifth-graders — determined to help her young students feel good about themselves.

Which teacher most affected you and your later life?

How and why?

As a teacher — which I know many of you are — how do you feel about your power to affect your students?

26 thoughts on “Which teacher(s) changed your life?

  1. Oh, by far it was Miss V, who later became Mrs. Goodbody. She was my first grade teacher and she did two things I will never forget. On the way into the classroom, on the backside of a time-out area, she had placed a mirror that said in glittery letters, “I am unique and special.” So for 189 days, I was told I was as good as everyone else in that class. The second thing she did was take me in her own car to my babysitter’s when I missed the bus. I only vaguely knew where it was. I didn’t have an address or a phone number and I didn’t know my mother’s work address or even where she worked. But off we went. And it meant so much to me that she went out of her way like that to help me.

  2. Luanne

    What a thought-provoking and very interesting post. What strikes me about my own history is that I had some good teachers, but most of them didn’t inspire me or bring out more or better in me, except maybe my high school history teacher. It wasn’t until grad school that I really had that kind of experience.

    1. Thanks!

      I’m glad you finally had someone inspiring. It is shocking and disappointing to me that one can spend almost one’s entire childhood and adolescence WITHOUT inspiration or excellence. No wonder many kids hate school.

  3. I wonder in the reverse scenario, Caitlin – did I leave any impressions on teachers? I can remember a grade 1 teacher who asked that I help other students with their reading and that was great for my confidence. I also had a teacher in Gr. 13 who very honestly told me, regarding a paper that I had written, that I could do better and she expected more of me. She was an English teacher and knew that I loved books and her expectation that I could do better stuck with me forever.

    1. I clearly left one on Ana! 🙂

      I had teachers like that at private school — pushing me to me do more and be better. I really missed those high expectations when I transferred to a public school.

      It’s an interesting question.

  4. Mrs. Barber, 12th grade English teacher, gave me confidence to go on to college. I never feared writing a paper. She taught me all the ins and outs of academic writing….not that other teachers didn’t help. I just think she left the greatest impression.

    Then there was Mr. Heidenreich my 4th grade teacher. He had a way of allowing for discovery learning, yet at the same time had ultimate control. He was strict but so much fun.

    As for judyrobbinsart’s question about students leaving an impression on teachers….of course there are kids that are etched into our brains. Some haunt us, some make us smile, some teach us valuable lessons. Some are now my facebook friends.

    1. It’s so important to have a teacher who helps to build our confidence. And Ms Brough was like Mr. Heidenrich. Glad you had a couple of good ones.

      I still remember some of my adult students from the early 90s…

  5. Many of my teachers changed my life, though not in a good way; it began with the barbaric primary school effort to ‘correct’ my left-handedness and continued at high school with a string of weak and incompetent teachers – notably my English teacher, who was a nice guy, but profoundly useless.. That had a happy outcome; to compensate, my parents sent me to writing courses at the local polytechnic. They had to get around a refusal of my high school headmaster to bend his timetable to allow me to do it.

    But I did it – and this training set me up for a lifetime. The guy who taught me there – Roly Vogt, a Kiwi who’d spent most his adult life in Vancouver, then come back to New Zealand to teach – did change my life. I remember and use the writing lessons he taught me to this day. The education extended to process, including proofing techniques. Invaluable. And all this was in spite of – not because of – my high school.

    1. Wow. Thank heaven your parents had the foresight to get you out of there!

      I’m glad you found someone so good. I never studied writing formally after high school…I’m sure it would have helped.

  6. originaltitle

    Great post! I became a teacher because I had very few teachers who encouraged me or inspired me growing up. I wanted to be that person for kids, that person who could inspire, but quickly found that the best teachers are the students themselves. When I taught art, I was constantly encouraged to become a better artists by the kids themselves. Their example of boundless creativity and ability to take risks with their work was amazing to see. It challenged me to be a better example and to not just teach them art, but show them what it meant to really live artistically. Thanks for sharing your experiences!

  7. A few weeks ago I wrote a post about Mrs. Sutton. She was my high school teacher for British literature. Oh, she was a lady with such style and panache. I secretly wanted to be like her. She told the class that she liked to go to the airport, not as a traveler, just to people watch. Fascinating! She taught me that listening and observing were skills that should be cultivated. That made me want to be a writer.
    A few years ago when my first book came out she came to a reading — twenty years had passed and she looked exactly the same! I was so overcome with joy that she came I nearly couldn’t read.

    1. What a fantastic role model for a young girl who wanted to write! She sounds a bit like Miss Jean Brodie — (have you seen that classic film?)

      How lovely that she came to your reading. It must have been a great source of pride for her as well to see how well you had done.

      And she’s so right about airports; I used to assign this as a writing exercise when I taught undergrad journalism….to go to the airport or train or bus station, sit and observe for at least an hour, then write.

  8. Hello there, Caitlin! I came across your blog on Claire’s “Vegetating Earth” blog. I really liked this article – I love thinking of the teachers who have had an impact on my life. I have a great deal of admiration for most of the teachers and professors I’ve had – especially those who forced me to question things, those who made me really think. Those mentors really create a spot in your heart – the one who really care.

    Great article


  9. i remember my 4th grade teacher, mrs. schultz. she read ‘a wrinkle in time’ aloud to us every day and i so looked forward to it and it added to my love of the written word and writing in general, in a very profound way. as a teacher myself, i so hope that i help someone, probably without even knowing it, and i’m fine with that, in a way that changes their life for the better. it is my goal as a teacher, more than anything else, to make children value themselves, realize their worth, and honor them as individuals. my job is to find the way to do that with each of them.

  10. I was lucky to have several really great teachers growing up, but the one I would have to say influenced me the most was my 9th grade and 12th grade English teacher. She moved up with my class because she wanted our group again. What stood out about her is that she allowed us to be ourselves and had a way to discipline us without embarrassing us. She would almost chuckle at the same time, and she maintained the light behind her eyes. We didn’t want to do wrong because we didn’t want to disappoint her. I was a very internal and introspective in high school, but I never felt shy. Somehow she saw that in me and pushed me to share my thoughts in class. She would say, “You are brilliant and other people deserve to hear what you have to say,” and I believed her. When we were seniors, she asked us to write a letter to ourselves, and she sent them to us years later. I wrote to her when I read mine and thanked her, and I let her know she made me want to become an English teacher, too. Now, I try to channel her in the classroom and, like she did, bring out what may be hidden in each student… what’s fighting to come out. Thank you for writing this! It reminded me of her and the big job that I have!

  11. most of my teachers were not very impressive, but one stands out for one small thing. my 10th grade english teacher introduced me to edgar allan poe. after reading a handful of his stories, the class was assigned to write something in the spirit of his work. i had never written much of anything at that point, really had no interest in writing at all. but i wrote a story about a victorian-era burglar and murderer who was was forced to hide somewhere in a house when a group of people unexpectedly arrived. the burglar climbed into the chimney. a party began, and the fireplace was lit. it did not take long for the burglar to die from smoke inhalation, but then his body caught fire and smoke from his body sunk down into the room. the people at the party slowly inhaled the smoke from his body. then that night, after the party was over, they all left, went their separate ways, and committed their own crimes. my teacher, miss bayles (pronounced like “bay” and “less”) responded very positively, and i have recently thought about rewriting it.

  12. Pingback: Teachers, Good or Bad | 2bitsworthofthoughts

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