What Makes an Educator Exceptional?

teachers who stand out are the ones who humanize their students

Lindsey Brandrup

Other than Teacher Appreciation Week, there isn’t a time when parents – and maybe even the community at large – appreciate teachers more than the week kids return to school. Facebook is filled with pictures of first days, teacher-themed inspirational quotes, and reminders of the ways teachers can change our lives. It’s one of those times we attempt to remember those that we take for granted, even if only artificially on social media. Sometimes it is the thought that counts.

What made these teachers exceptional is their ability to humanize, to see the diverse collection of students that arrive in their classes every fall as individuals and companions, however temporary, on the journey and in the struggle.

So think for a bit about the teacher in your life who made the biggest difference. Recall the moment that makes that person – above the hundreds, maybe thousands, of other people you saw on a daily basis during the school year – stand out. I’m not going to speculate on what makes that person unique. I don’t have to; I know from my own teachers.

Mrs. Kottwitz was my Spanish teacher for two consecutive years. She organized and chaperoned my class trip to Spain. She taught me to understand how language shapes reality. She taught me to love art. She was, by most standards, a rigorous teacher. Many of her students tested into upper-level Spanish courses in college. But when I think of her, I don’t have a test or project or any of those things in mind. I think of her teaching me about La Guernica and how I cried as I stood in front of it in Madrid. I think about her telling my volleyball coach, another chaperone on the trip, to let me be when we walked the streets of Sevilla and he started to question me about what I was doing to prepare in the off-season. And I think, most poignantly and most frequently, about the hug she gave me when I returned from a school hiatus, having spent some time away trying to learn how to cope with depression. We were by the library. I had missed four days of class and needed to find her to ask for help on getting caught up. Unlike my “well-respected” economics teacher, she didn’t insinuate that it must be nice to start the semester with a vacation; instead, she stopped, looked me in the eye, and gave me a hug. She said she didn’t know what I was going through, but that even though I felt broken at that time, I could heal. And I remember this 20 years later. I remember it so vividly that it brings tears to my eyes. And I am thankful that I had the chance to tell her, before she died too early of cancer, how much that moment meant to me.

Mr. Poss was not revered in the same way. He, too, died, though allegedly, and more than once. Legend has it that once he was brought back to life after having fallen through the ice while fishing and being dead for two full minutes. The legend left out – or was later footnoted to include – that the depth of the water was six inches. This was not his only brush with death. As a teacher, he was idiosyncratic; I can easily envision how he threw his chalkboard eraser at the loudspeaker when it would interrupt our class with an announcement. As students, we saw that he fought for a creative writing class in which we could bring in our own chairs. I brought in all the fittings of my bed – a comforter, a pillow, and blankets – and that is where I got to sit and write every day. It was the first class where I felt I was valued and allowed to explore my own thoughts. I did well in every class in high school, and college, because I had parents with high expectations, I was decent at reading, I knew how to listen and follow directions, and I had mastered the codes of communication and interaction that public schools require. But in Mr. Poss’s class, I felt that I had something meaningful to contribute to the world. I wrote a paper called “Surviving an Eating Disorder” that I’m sure wasn’t actually very good, but Mr. Poss encouraged me to write it and then shared it with my parents at conferences and it changed my relationship with them. Without the space created by Mr. Poss, without his attentive ear and his caring about me as a human being, it’s difficult to say if that breakthrough would have ever occurred. Perhaps his colleagues’ opinions would differ, but therein lies the point.

These are the two teachers that I carry with me. I appreciate many others along the way, certainly, but what made these teachers exceptional – what makes a teacher exceptional – is their ability to humanize, to see the diverse collection of students that arrive in their classes every fall as individuals and companions, however temporary, on the journey and in the struggle.

The fact of the matter is that there is no one way to positively affect all kids. This isn’t to say that studies shouldn’t factor in to teaching, but it is to say that we can’t eliminate the role that human connection plays just because it doesn’t translate nicely into data. When it comes to communicating with other humans, even if those humans are young and their brains are still developing, there is just listening. There is just empathizing. There is just trying. That’s what should constitute an exceptional educator. Because it is exceptional to listen, empathize, and try to improve the lives of children who are not your own and to do so every single day.

This back-to-school season, perhaps you can best show your gratitude for teachers by sharing a moment of humanization one of yours was able to cultivate. And if you really want to be a stellar student, you could share it publicly. Gold stars for those who do.

Lindsey Brandrup is in her 12th year teaching high school English. She has taught Spanish and English in both public and charter school settings in Eau Claire and Milwaukee.