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Perspective | Witnessing my first teacher’s lasting marks on so many

My mom, Pat Martin, recently told me that she was invited to the wedding of one of her former students. When she asked if I remembered Sophie, I pictured the 5-year-old kindergartener in pigtails who was in my mom’s class. Sophie reached out and invited my mom to her wedding nearly three decades later. My mom then went to her photo albums, quickly found the year she taught Sophie, and sent her several pictures from when she was 5. Sophie wrote a beautiful note about the impact my mom had on her.

Of course, she is just one of countless students and their parents who remember and reconnect with my mom, and I know there are even more that were deeply affected by her. My mom taught so many children to read regardless of where they started on that first day of kindergarten, and she understood long before we had the language to describe it that addressing social and emotional learning and personalizing what each child needs is essential to lay the foundation for their future success.

I spent a lot of time in my mom’s classrooms over the years. I even got chickenpox from one student when I visited during a college break. I witnessed how my mom approached each child with respect and understood the importance of ensuring that the learning environment was relevant to each child. I watched child after child succeed with their learning differences. I watched how my mom understood the importance of movement and joy as a part of learning. I witnessed how my mom truly saw each student and each family. I tried to take all of this into my own teaching.

My mom as my first teacher set the bar very high for me, and I am proud to say that I have continued to know many, many teachers over the years across North Carolina and across the country who enter the teaching field and bring a very similar perspective as my mom to each and every day. My children had many amazing teachers who changed how they saw themselves as learners and took the time to make a lasting connection with them. I have countless more examples of other teachers who go above and beyond every day for their students and students across the district or state. These teachers believe in and trust their students. I’m so tempted to start naming these educators but know I’ll leave out too many. 

Our teachers spend hours and hours, too often on their own time, planning their lessons and providing feedback to students. We don’t often see these parts of teaching and learning, but they are essential to helping our students learn and grow. My own research from many years showed that for each hour a teacher spends engaged in instruction, they spend 50 minutes planning lessons and grading or providing feedback on their students’ work. That’s before all of the other responsibilities, family engagement, teacher leadership roles, and relationship building that I’ve just described. 

I hope that you will take five minutes today to thank a teacher that is special to you. If possible, thank many teachers who have impacted you and children you know. 

I have written many pieces and conducted many interviews over the past couple of years lifting up the crisis education faces as our shortages increase in all areas here in North Carolina. We know that teachers are the number one school-related factor that influences student outcomes; and our teachers are community leaders who ultimately affect everything else we do and strive to be. 

I’ve yet to meet a teacher who didn’t want to make a positive impact on students and the world when they chose education for their career. My mom generally experienced very strong support and respect for her profession throughout her teaching career. Many articles written recently reference how parents are pleased with their own child’s education experience, and yet as a whole, we as a society no longer seem to value or honor what it takes to be a teacher. You hear the rhetoric and the public discussions, and teachers hear them, too.

We need to do everything we can as a society and as a state to ensure that our current and future teachers know that we value them and their critical role every single day — not only during Teacher Appreciation Week, but in a consistent and sustainable way. We must provide the fiscal and human resources our schools and students need. After you thank a teacher today, take a moment to ask others about teachers who made the difference for them. It is quite amazing to think about how many students think back to those kindergarten days with my mom.  

Mary Ann Wolf

Mary Ann Wolf, Ph.D. has served as President and Executive Director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina since June 2020, bringing with her more than 20 years of educational policy and leadership working directly with schools and districts across North Carolina to improve equity and build capacity for innovation.