Acknowledging an early inspiration

I knew it the instant I walked into Edith Mather’s kindergarten in the fall of 1956: I’m going to be a teacher. There was something about that classroom that was so wonderfully exciting, so inviting, so safe. It wasn’t just the room, of course, but the warmth, enthusiasm and dedication of a brilliant teacher who greeted me as I cautiously peeked into that room for the first time.

It was a wonderful year! Behind every vivid memory there is the teacher who told us stories and taught us to tie our shoes, took us to the pond to see the tadpoles, and helped us learn how to share, put things away, and wait for our turn. She provided a learning environment rich in colorful and stimulating resources and activities, and yet had the grace and patience to allow me to indulge my preoccupation with “painting at the easel,” even when it was the only thing I wanted to do for weeks at a time. She handled the rare discipline problem with gentle good humor and managed to treat each of us as though we mattered more than anything in the entire world.

Although I had some marvelous teachers in the years that followed, Mrs. Mather was a tough act to follow. I always went back to her class to visit, but the kids in my neighborhood went to other schools from fourth grade on and I never saw her again after that.

I often wondered about her, especially when I walked into my first classroom as a teacher. As I prepared for my first group of students, I wondered if I’d ever be the kind of teacher Mrs. Mather had been. I knew I had the content down, that I could develop materials and prepare lessons with the best of them. But what about the relationships, the way I’d interact with my students, the way they’d feel when they were in my class? Mrs. Mather became the yardstick against which I would measure my successes and analyze my mistakes. Throughout my career, I have tried to hold the image of her patience, her commitment, and her ability to believe in all of her students as a beacon for me to follow.

From time to time I would try to contact her. I wanted to see how she was doing, to share a few memories with her and to let her know that my career passions and pursuits had begun in her care. Unfortunately, the new teachers did not remember her and the personnel office had lost track of her. I kept trying with no success. (This was, after all, in the days before electronic wizardry made finding people much easier!)

Years later, I was having dinner with a friend whose mother once taught with Mrs. Mather. She said she’d ask around at the next Retired Teacher’s Association meeting and sure enough, found someone who had an address for Mrs. Mather in a town nearby.

I was so excited! I finally wrote her the letter I’d been composing in my head for more than twenty years. I shared my memories of things we did in her room, of how wonderful that year had been. I dug up my school picture from 1956 (above) and sent her a copy. I told her about my own experiences as a classroom teacher. I sent her the first article I had published in a magazine for teachers, and a brochure that detailed the work I was currently doing as an independent contractor and consultant to schools throughout the world. “All because of you!” I wrote.

I sent the letter off feeling as though I had completed something that was critically important for me to do. A few months later, I received a note from her son, who had found my correspondence with some of the last things his mother had read. My letter had arrived two weeks before Mrs. Mather passed away. I’ll never know if she actually remembered who I was or how she felt about receiving my letter, but all that was somewhat beside the point. For regardless of any response or recollection this letter might have inspired, I just wanted to let a gifted teacher know that her efforts had come to good, that many, many years ago, she had touched the heart of a child, and that above all things, like any talented educator, she had made a difference in another person’s life.

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Related resources:

Recharging our Professional Batteries: 3 Ways to Keep the Love Alive!

Podcast: Leading Learning: The art, science, and craft of teaching with Glenn Capelli

Book: Mentors, Masters and Mrs. MacGregor: Stories of Teachers Making a Difference

Product: “Pads” on the Back: Sticky-notes with 10 different acknowledgements. Like getting a hug on paper!

Articles: “Thank a Teacher.” Click here for this and other articles for purchase.

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