Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Gratitude for Great Teachers


Lucky is the best way I can describe my feelings about the people who nourished a relationship with me and took the time to teach me. The gifts I am sharing here include many of the same values that readers can relate to in their own experiences. My words may even help you form your own list of the teachers who made a difference in your life.

This installment includes six teacher heroes. I created my list on the fly without planning. I wanted to see where this winding road of gratitude would take me. I also gave myself a time limit in order to focus on the first ideas that came to mind. My goal was to draw attention to how my teachers continue to influence my approach to serving students. In my writing, you will notice that the terms coach and teacher are interchangeable as are many of the lessons I learned from both. Even without a lot of personal context, the themes that emerge here will sound familiar.

Most of all, I hope this blog entry encourages you to identify the memorable teachers in your life. Put your thoughts in a journal or a note and consider sending it to the person who made a difference in your life. If that person is no longer alive, send your sentiments to their next of kin. As a matter of reflecting, it is humbling to take stock and realize how an act of kindness or a person simply being themselves can have a lasting influence deserving of recognition.

One of the incredible forces of gratitude is that it establishes a truth that all parties enjoy re-living. This worthy investment of time, particularly in writing, takes on a life of its own.

High School graduation with my cousin Sarah
was special. For more than 20 years we attended
the same school (MSU graduates together too).
She put up with a lot. 

Six teachers who made the difference for me

I think it is best to start with a person who might least expect it since I was an absolute pain in the ass in junior high. Looking back, my eighth grade teacher Mrs. Nancy McGuire had patience and grace - traits she probably felt had escaped her by the time we crawled to the June finish line. Our rambunctious class seemed to have a foolproof mix of mischievous leadership, which included me, and enough followers to make it interesting. Junior high was full of pranks and feeling on top of the world, usually at someone else's expense.

As it turned out Mrs. McGuire's very sweet daughter was part of our class and that provided more insight into her students than she desired. Mrs. McGuire was special because even as a self-absorbed snot I never doubted whether she cared about me. Sure, all great teachers care, but the fact I knew she cared says a lot about her. Caring about my well-being was a tall order because I was mouthy and I persistently tried to hi-jack the class. I spent most of the school year acting out my frustration with a recurring knee injury and despite crutches for most of eighth grade I mastered walking that thin line of pushing adults to madness, but just short of trouble for me. It was an art really.

Hard-headed and full of excuses, I knew Mrs. McGuire cared even though I dared her to give up on me and I constantly pushed back. As a veteran teacher, I marvel at her ability to get through to me when my entire goal to wear her down seemed to be working. By the end of the year I relented and I was glad she stuck with me despite my angst and disrespect. That knowing the teacher cares about you quality was Mrs. McGuire's gift. I try to emulate her strength and make it my own. It is difficult sometimes to stay mindful and do my best to reach my students, especially the ones who push back.

My sons first baseball season
reminds me of my coach, Kyle Henry.
Kyle Henry was the best ball coach a kid could have. Sure, we were more Bad News Bears than All-stars, but it worked out beautifully. Even though I have always been competitive, I had a lot of fun learning from Kyle. He was the father of my best friend growing up and by default he was my ride to games and practices. I ate meals and watched WWF wrestling at his home. As a veteran teacher, his influence on how I try to relate to young people is notable. A natural, Kyle connected with me because he was a big kid with an even bigger heart. Kyle introduced me to a life lesson that was innate to him: Children are drawn to people with big hearts.

Kyle was a perfect fit at a critical time in my imperfect childhood. He was more than the coach - he became a regular fixture in my life, inviting me along for countless high school basketball games and even a few trips to Tiger Stadium in Detroit. We all need someone who is there for us without a trace of judgement. For me, that was Kyle Henry. He showed me that a big heart without an ego to match is a magnet for someone out there. I was his someone. I am grateful that he took an interest in me at a time when I needed the attention. My parents were divorced and it was a confusing time in my life. Kyle Henry has motivated me to see the good in all young people no matter what. After all, not every nine-year-old got a Kyle in their life when they needed one like I did.    

Mr. Warner apparently stuffed 84 
grapes into his mouth on a challenge.
(1987 Ionia High School yearbook)
Mr. Charles Warner was my high school chemistry teacher. Since I am not much of a science guy and normally looked for the easier path to earn my A's and B's in high school, he was facing an uphill battle for my affection. That battle lasted all of five minutes as his smile and goofy excitement about science fostered an atmosphere where learning trumped insecurity. That is a huge feat for a teacher and Mr. Warner had the it factor.

Tough to quantify, he had the capacity to draw students into his lessons with contagious enthusiasm. Immediately Mr. Warner came to mind as I began writing about great teachers in my life because he had the winning combination of high expectations, smiles and academic rigor. I learned about teaching in his science class and that realization came about five years into my career.

My desire to learn about a subject I initially had zero interest in taught me to keep an open mind. Let's face it, a great teacher can help students find the itch for learning just about anything. I remain mindful of the students who are not thrilled about their placement in the American Government class I teach and I try to channel Mr. Warner in my best attempts to win them over. His enthusiasm for teaching was inescapable. He was a pro and students loved him because he loved us back. An absolute pro.   

I credit my youth coaches for instilling  
the values I try to pass on each season. 
Sports have always been fun for me.
Coach Leipprandt was a math teacher in our high school and while I never had the opportunity to learn in his math class, he taught me a lot about life on the basketball court. A principled man, Coach had his unique ways to make sure we knew he cared about us. He would write these life lesson types of quotes on his classroom white board everyday and we would drop in to see the quote. I think it was a ploy for him to build relationships with us off the court and I have always admired his effort in that regard.

He confidently made the effort to build positive relationships with young people and for a grown man to model that to me was something I truly appreciate. Today, I want my students and players to know I care and I try to find my own Coach Leipprandt ways to demonstrate my interest in their lives.

Among his many qualities, I the incredible consistency in Coach's approach to building our team was praise-worthy. He demanded that we work hard and work together. Coach Leipprandt was trying to teach us how to think the game and glean the valuable lessons basketball can teach young men if they stop long enough to reflect. His humility and good intentions as a leader are remarkable qualities. Our team experience was never about him. It was always about us. Under his guidance, committing to hard work went from a challenge to something that defined me as a student-athlete. I credit Coach's consistency, high expectations and caring about me for excelling my maturity as an adolescent. We talk often and I appreciate his wisdom. For the past dozen years, I have been coaching JV boys basketball and on my best days, Coach Leipprandt coaches my teams through me. In fact, I usually call him before at least a couple big games each season.

I love this picture of me (overalls, right side) with my cousins.
When I was eight years old I needed Mrs. Pozega in school.
Ms. Joan Pozega was the best third grade teacher a child could have. She was kind. Her demeanor was warm and optimistic and as goofy as this may sound, I felt special in her class. I belonged. My parents were a few years into a nasty divorce and there was not a better teacher for me at that point in my life. I remember our Detroit Tiger World Series class party, being cast as the lead (Herbert the Ghost) in our Halloween play and watching my candidate Walter Mondale get crushed in our class election for US president.

My love for school dropped after third grade and if not for Ms. Pozega, third grade would have been the drop-off year. By the way, if you know Ms. Pozega, pass this blog post on to her. She was also a kindergarten teacher at Sts. Peter & Paul in Ionia. I have no idea if she is still a classroom teacher, but I would love to hear from her. She was talented and well-liked by everyone. She definitely has a gift for the profession.

Coach Walter with me and my kids. He
had a full page of notes from the game
he watched. I designed my next practice
based on those notes. 
Steve Walter taught me about discipline and working hard to be my best when I was in seventh grade. He was my basketball coach and I did not want to disappoint him. Beyond family, not wanting to disappoint someone says quite a bit about the prominent role of that person in one's life.

Concepts that would normally be reserved for high school level coaches were instilled in us early. Steve - the only coach I had that went by his first name even though I always called him, coach - had a knack for teaching us the why behind his coaching philosophy. In fact, his passion for the game surprised me as a youngster and despite missing my entire eighth grade season due to injury, I still fed off his passion from the sidelines.

I remember as a kid feeling like we were all part of some experiment to determine if we could ever figure him out. At some point it eventually clicked that what Coach loved was teaching and I did not arrive at that conclusion until I was a young adult. I am grateful now that he had such strong convictions about the correct way to play the game. He demanded that we play unselfishly with attention to the fundamentals we practiced every day. He pushed us and he cared about us.

Without even realizing it, he was helping me in my career as an educator. Steve taught me to respect authority better than anyone I had met to that point. He showed me the value of self-control. Under his leadership a culture of discipline gave me tremendous confidence. Certainly, his lessons took some time to carry over into other areas of my life, but I benefited in the long run. His approach helped all of us learn the valuable lesson that the gratification for practicing good habits is not instant. Many of the qualities that have carried me on a journey of personal fulfillment have origins that can be traced back to the lessons Coach instilled in our team.

Steve Walter achieved results with his brand of 1980's tough love, but it was his remarkable teaching ability that stands out to me today as I work with young people. As a grown man, one of the happiest moments in my professional career was having Coach in attendance as my team beat a more talented opponent on a last-second shot. (photo above)


Growing up in Ionia, Mich. with a large family gave me advantages. My family gave my life meaning and I was fortunate to grow up with a balance of accountability and the freedom to make mistakes. My mom, often unconventional in her methods, has shaped who I am more than any other person in my life. My values can be traced back to my grandparents, who were the glue for all of us. Together, my grandpa and grandma taught us how to be team players and they showed us how to love. My family helped me want to be my best. It was clear to me at an early age that values were something lived, not preached.

Between my family, my career teaching and my school experiences, I have always had special teachers take an interest in my life. I have a place reserved for all of these teachers in my heart. I keep space available for all the new teachers I will encounter down the road too.

That's me on my mom's lap (far right). My grandparents were 
incredible teachers to all of us. From the time I was a teenager 
I knew I wanted to grow up to be like my grandpa. 
My most memorable teachers usually met me at the intersection of my own vulnerability and challenging circumstances. I am grateful for the people who stepped up in my life when our paths crossed. Growing up with my family and my community has significantly influenced how I approach my career in education.

When it comes to the people who have helped me along the way, my list is long. In the ten minutes since I finished my tribute, I have already thought about my gratitude for Old Dawg Jerry Reams (baseball coach), Martha Sykes (fifth grade teacher), Darin Magley (basketball coach), Mitch Mercer (baseball coach), Sally Vandenburg (seventh grade teacher) or Dan Painter (high school phys ed teacher). There are more.  

No matter how much the teaching profession changes, there are few careers in the world where the opportunity to have a special place in the lives of others is so frequent. Great teaching and the impact of positive relationships will always be meaningful in our society. Maybe it's my place in life with an incredible wife and two young children or maybe it's due to where I am in my career, but I am happier just staying focused on why I chose to teach. The lessons passed on to me through my experience strengthens my resolve to advocate for our profession and remind people that investing in a great educational experience for children makes communities stronger. We will all suffer if we reduce teaching to poorly designed and inadequate measures of effectiveness. Most of all, I feel fortunate to have had so many special people support me and it motivates me to do my best.
Leave a comment below and share in a few sentences your gratitude for a teacher in your life. Maybe you know the people I am celebrating here and you would like to share your own thoughts. Regardless, let this be the start of something more.

1 comment:

  1. So awesome dude, great job. What insight. It's beautiful to know someday somebody will be including your name in a similar piece. LOVE! #dreamimpossible