By Khulia Pringle
I’m student teaching now, which means my days are about learning to walk as a teacher, while also thinking about my practice, craft, and studies. It’s natural for me to think about role models — those teachers who really made a difference in my life.
That’s easy. Jan Mandell was the one teacher who made a huge impact on my success. She was my theater teacher at St. Paul Central High School who made the difference between my staying in school or dropping out. When she retired after decades in the district, students came to honor her. Each said a similar thing: “If it wasn’t for Jan, I would have dropped out.”
In her early days of teaching, the administration would send the “troubled” kids to her. Eventually students were able to choose her acting class or not. Many happily chose her as a teacher like I did for all four years of high school.
Those weren’t easy years for me. I was in foster homes — sometimes homeless — and had countless other problems. I trusted her because it was obvious that she respected me as an individual and as an artist. I knew she would never give up on me, which made me feel important and valued.
While Jan was everything I needed her to be as a teacher — caring, consistent, and creative — she is really the only teacher in all my 12 years of school that I remember fondly.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot and wondering why I can’t remember more than one teacher who made a difference in my life? It’s not just me. I’ve asked friends and they have one special teacher too. They say it’s the 1st-, 2nd-, or 3rd-grade teacher. It makes me wonder what happened during all the other grades? Not all teachers can be Jan, but shouldn’t more be memorable for a positive impact?
I’m left believing that for many students, effective teachers can be the exception to the rule, instead of the standard.
In another blog post, I wrote that “If you can’t teach my black children, admit it and move on,” from the perspective of black mother. But I must consider the full circle of life in a school — starting as a student, then a parent, and now as a teacher in an urban school.
This is what I know for sure: Teaching is hard. I constantly wonder if I am failing to reach students. I’m constantly aware of my students going through real life issues brought on by poverty, violence, drugs, and mental illness. It is tough to develop smart and engaging ways to teach content. My classroom is packed. I can’t always rely on administration to help me solve problems.
The list of things that make teaching difficult could go on, but knowing how much of a difference Jan made in my life, I want to feel powerful in the lives of my students. They need me to be fully present, supportive, and ready for anything life throws at us.
It breaks my heart that more children don’t experience a full 12 years of teachers like Jan. If nothing else, I’m committed to being that one teacher they remember as moving heaven and Earth for them. For now, I must get back to prepping for tomorrow, another day where it’s my privilege to be a teacher.