Sure, many teachers feel the love during the last week of school, often in the form of Starbucks gift cards and Bath & Body Works baskets. They may even get a shout out during a graduation speech at the end of the year if they’re lucky.
When Senator Kamala Harris released her plan to increase teacher pay, she introduced us to Frances Wilson, a teacher who made a lasting impression on her during childhood. She didn’t thank Wilson for teaching her methods to increase her standardized test scores, or credit the teacher’s lessons for her admission into a good college. She remembered Wilson for the “sense of hope and courage” she instilled during some of the most formative years of the senator’s life.
The most consequential teachers don’t just provide our children with an education. They tell them how they can best use it. They help them realize their own potential, or how they can chart their own path forward.
Our country’s educators are not just random strangers assigned to our child’s classroom for nine months. They are their role models and second parents. Teachers spend more time with our kids than anyone else — and during some of the most formative years of their lives. Learning state capitals and algebra equations are just the tip of the iceberg.
Sometimes a teacher’s efforts are the catalyst for a presidential campaign, as is the case for Mrs. Wilson.
Sometimes, the product is more subtle — but no less significant.
The teacher who changed the game for my son
I would know, because one very special educator changed the outcome for my son in a way I never could’ve myself.
My eldest is 13-years-old. He is charming and outgoing, a solid athlete and talented waterman, happiest on his Opti sailboat. And now, he is a strong student — a phrase I never would’ve used to describe him only five years ago when his academic woes had our family in a state of crisis. My son was in second grade when we learned his brain worked a little bit different than most. He was struggling to learn how to read, falling further and further behind his classmates with each passing day. I could see him withdrawing from the classroom, losing his mojo and begging to come home early whenever he had the chance. His efforts to finish homework often turned to loud screams and frustrated cries before dinner was even on the table.
I was at a loss — both my husband and I never struggled in school. We aced all of our standardized tests, graduated college and both held incredibly demanding, intellectual jobs.
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Teachers spend more time with our kids than anyone else — and during some of the most formative years of their lives. Learning state capitals and algebra equations are just the tip of the iceberg.
How could this possibly be happening? I was sure he simply wasn’t trying hard enough.
After a couple of tests, I wasn’t so sure anymore. As the school year came to a close, the school psychologist told us our son had a learning disability: he was dyslexic.
I didn’t question the diagnosis itself — the counselor was absolutely right. My son did see words and letters differently, which greatly affected his ability to read. I wish, though, I had challenged the words she had used. Months later, when I had the privilege of first meeting Dr. Jay Russell of the Windward School, he put into words what I couldn’t all those years ago: my son did not suffer from a learning disability. He just learned differently.
And he is not alone. Not even close. According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities, 1 in 5 people identify as having a learning difference. Contrary to popular belief, these differences have no impact on general intelligence. But when these children are misdiagnosed, or not diagnosed at all, problems arise. I think about kids I went to school with who disappeared as school became more and more challenging. They were called “slow” and left to fend for themselves in a one size fits all system. That could just as easily have been my own son.
Likening these kinds of learning differences as weaknesses is a dangerous game. I know now that had I continued down that road, my son’s reading challenges would’ve quickly turned into disciplinary ones. There’s data to back this up, too: half of all students with learning disabilities are suspended during their schooling, while 1 in 3 are held back, 1 in 4 are depressed and 1 in 5 ultimately drop out.
Dr. Russell knows the stakes are high. That’s why he has devoted his career to equipping teachers around the country with the tools to teach all students successfully — not just those who learn more traditionally. Dr. Jay Russell knew that my son wanted to learn — he just wasn’t in an environment that gave him the right resources to do so.