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Let us now praise excellent teachers

My sixth grade class. I'm older than I look.

School is over, and I’m feeling particularly affectionate toward teachers right now. I don’t know how they do it. I spent the last hour of the last day of school in the classroom, celebrating the end of my son’s third grade year, and within fifteen minutes I was plotting how I could get us out of there early. Pretend to faint? Suddenly remember a root canal appointment? SCHEDULE a root canal appointment? At any rate: thank you, professionals, for dealing with kids in a group setting and managing to remain sober. During the day, at least. You are heroes.

I had my share of great and less-than-great teachers, but what’s stayed with me is the messages I received about who I was, about what kind of person I was. In sixth grade my teacher made it clear that I was a writer. I don’t remember him using those words, but his behavior was all I needed. He held my writing in high esteem, and as I held him in such high esteem, his opinion changed me. He believed I was a good writer, and I believed him. I never thought much about any other life, after that.

For a kid, positive reinforcement like that is invaluable and it lasts forever. And at least in my experience, it has to come from a teacher. My parents were always delighted by my writing, but they were my parents, and (I believed) legally required to like anything I did. (I had no idea how lucky I was in that regard, either.) But a teacher is a professional. An authority. A teacher is paid to teach, not to issue compliments. A teachers knows what he’s talking about.

These days I get to enjoy what a talented writer my son is. I tell him, but he doesn’t pay much attention. He enjoys my praise, I know, but it doesn’t sink in. That doesn’t stop me, of course. But it’s the positive feedback in school–when his poems win awards, when his teacher reads one of his stories out loud to the class–that I can see shaping his interest, turning him from a reluctant writer with a perfectionist streak to a prolific storyteller.

I don’t know if he’ll be a writer, but I do know that if he does, it will be thanks, in no small part, to his teachers.

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