It's All About People
My most valuable school experiences weren't academic. They were all about people—social skills, respect, self-worth, empathy, and realizing your own potential. On the sports field, I learned about winning and losing graciously. In the classroom, I learned that doing your best counted far more than academic ability.
Because of teachers who believed in me, I also learned that I was capable of more than I thought. In our final year of school, our teachers identified a few of us to join Toastmasters, which I hadn't even heard of. I found my niche—talking to others. I won our provincial round of prepared speeches and went on to come in third in South Africa. Never in my wildest dreams would I have expected that. I've been out of school for 21 years, but I still look back at the lessons I learned and try to pass them on to the children I teach now.
—Debbie Preston, geography specialist and educational consultant, Howick Prep School, South Africa
Working Toward Your Goals
My 6th grade teacher at Maple Ridge Elementary in Calgary, Mr. Johnson, issued a class challenge—we would climb a mountain together. He gave us weekly training goals and monitored our progress. He paired us up with buddies to train, and talked to us about how climbing a mountain is really a metaphor for living our lives. This taught me that I can do anything I set my mind to if I set a goal and worked toward it. I model this to my students every day by being a master learner first instead of a master teacher. We struggle, fail, and persevere as we work together in a community of learners. We encourage failure because learning really sticks with us when we fail.
—Lisa Domeier de Suarez, teacher-librarian, Surrey School District #36, British Columbia, Canada
The Importance of Feeling Valued
Long before differentiation was an education term, I was fortunate enough to have two teachers who gave me meaningful assignments that were different from the rest of the class. I was still responsible for the core material, but I could explore as well, at my own pace and on topics that interested me. Sure, I learned some neat ideas, but what I really learned was that I was valued as an individual. When I became a teacher, I remembered their example. I differentiate regularly so my students can learn that they, too, are valued as individuals.
—Lorraine Jacques, department chairperson, mathematics, Ridgefield High School, Ridgefield, Connecticut
Seeing a Bright Future
In the 8th grade, my language arts teacher, Mrs. Griffin, presented a new trajectory for me by uttering the following words: "I do not want you to invite me to your high school graduation; I want you to invite me to your college graduation." This statement marked the first time anyone presented a college degree to me as an attainable pathway. Eight years later, I became the first person in my family to graduate from college. When I sent out announcements for my college graduation ceremony, Mrs. Griffin was the first person on my guest list.
—Angela Estrella, teacher, Monta Vista High School, Cupertino, California
Don't Take No for an Answer
In school, I learned not to take no for an answer. A middle school teacher told me I could not take shop, only home economics (it was the '70s). I took shop. In high school, a favorite teacher told me that I would never win a public-speaking contest. It made me so mad that I entered a national contest and won first in the state and third in the nation. A guidance counselor told me I would never be accepted into my first-choice college; I was. I keep my public-speaking medals and my diplomas framed on my wall as a reminder that there is always a way. As an assistant principal, principal, and now a supervisor, I stress to students that they should not let anyone else decide what they can achieve.
—Lori L. Batts, supervisor, Wicomico County Board of Education, Salisbury, Maryland
The Power of Words
The most important thing I learned was the power of communication. I was empowered by my teachers and coaches to use my words to motivate, inform, and inspire. Throughout my education, I poured my soul into my words, whether written or spoken. The ability to communicate is the most important skill I currently use in my role as principal and coach. Every time I see a former teacher or coach, I thank him or her for motivating me to be expressive.
—Brady L. Cook, principal, Michigan Center Schools, Grass Lake, Michigan
Go Ahead and Ask
The most important thing I learned in school is that there are no questions too stupid to ask. Curiosity and the courage to ask questions are essential to learning. The answers might also evolve as we get older, gather more facts, and view things from different vantage points. The ability to deal with uncertainty is part of learning and growing up. I demonstrate by example—by treating every student as a unique resource. Everyone has something to give if we step back, take time to listen, observe, and draw it out.
—Connie Au-Yeung, teacher British Council, Tokyo, Japan
Writing Workshop Skills
Three things that I learned in school have been paramount to my success after graduation: how to write well, how to work independently within time constraints, and how to work collaboratively. In my 6th grade classroom, I help my students develop these abilities by using a writing-workshop model. I believe it helps students become stronger writers and stronger readers. Small groups and individual conferences are the perfect platform for differentiating instruction. Students learn to budget their time, work independently, and work in groups as they discuss, plan their writing, confer, edit, revise, and produce finished pieces of writing.
—Dori Moore, grade 6 teacher, Islip Public Schools, New York
Never Give Up
All during elementary school I was a daydreamer, and it was a struggle for me to achieve. Once I was in high school and involved in basket ball, I became more focused, but I continued to struggle academically.
Still, I was determined to not only go to college but also to graduate and find a fulfilling occupation. At the end of college, when I decided to be a teacher, I faced another challenge—I was given a temporary certificate and had to continue taking courses to be permanently certified. After five successful teaching years, I faced a new struggle—obtaining my master's degree so that I could become an administrator. I continued in school administration for 40 years and had the honor of having my last school named after me.
The lessons I learned centered on the theme of never giving up, even when told by various teachers and supervisors that I did not belong in education and should not expect success. Determination, hard work, and a firm belief in who I was allowed me to overcome these obstacles.
—Eric L. Knowlton, assistant superintendent, Sanford, Maine
Latin Opens Doors
The most important thing I studied in school was Latin. It opened so many doors for me. From history, to mathematics, to the skills of analysis and the access to primary sources, it put me a step ahead. I encourage all my students to take it.
—Evan Smith, teacher, Georgetown Day School, Washington, DC
While I was attending school as a youngster, my family moved around a lot. To survive all the moves, I learned to make friends and to be accepting of all the students I met. I expect my family had a lot to do with that also; we were taught at home to accept all people regardless of skin color, abilities, and so on. I was fortunate to have had teachers who were accepting and used group work with a variety of students, thus encouraging collaboration (before it was a buzzword).
—Brenda Giourmetakis, principal, Rideau Park School, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
Learning to Find the Answers
I had amazing teachers who went well beyond the curriculum to offer us project-based learning many years ago. This taught me time management, problem solving, and critical thinking. I try to give my students the same opportunities. I let them struggle through real, relevant problems to create their own solutions. Often I hear that although the project was difficult, they are so proud of their efforts, learning, and accomplishments!
—Samantha Anth, gifted education specialist, Center for Creative Learning, Ellisville, Missouri
In junior high school, I was the second-smallest kid in a fairly tough school, so it was important to make friends quickly. I became the "ideas man" for our group of friends, and I realized that communication was an essential skill for getting on. I learned this outside the classroom, but in my own classrooms today I use cooperative work and an emotionally safe learning environment to weave in interpersonal and intrapersonal issues to help my students be more confident communicators.
—Andrew Raymond Vivian, consultant, MV Education Services, Jakarta, Indonesia
Take It in Stride
The best thing I learned was to be flexible and to not get worked up when things didn't go according to plan. One of the things I do with students to teach them this is to set up scenarios where they plan for things to happen, and then "unfortunately" situations change and the students have to change their tack and plans. This strategy teaches them flexibility and gives them the ability to cope if their plans go wrong.
—Mary Robinson, head of social sciences faculty, St. Cuthbert's College, Auckland, New Zealand
Believe in Yourself
Although it may appear simple, belief in myself was most important to my success after school. When I work alongside students, my goal is for them to feel that the task is within their reach. This should look different for each student because their entry points need to be precisely aligned with their readiness. Complicated? Yes, but when this comes together, students believe in themselves and their learning is transformed.
—Mary-Lou Dunnigan, student work study teacher, Ottawa Catholic School Board, Ontario, Canada
That Sense of Accomplishment
Possibly the most important idea I learned in school is to relish your personal accomplishments and to embrace the way they make you feel. Trophies can break and paper certificates can fade, but the way you feel when you achieve something after much time and perseverance is inside you and cannot be taken away. I make every effort to remind my students that their success is a result of their own work. Most important, I highlight their achievements on creative projects. These projects are personal and unique, and they would not exist if the student had not brought them into the world.
—Jeffrey McCoach, teacher, Methacton School District, Collegeville, Pennsylvania
The most important things I learned in school were how to study and think about ideas through writing and discussion. The high expectations and rigorous activities of my K–12 experience made college feel easy. Thank you, Glendale River Hills and Nicolet High School!
—Kim Schneider, curriculum support specialist, Fond du Lac, Wisconsin