All Articles Education Commentary Thank you! A tribute to the teachers who made a difference

Thank you! A tribute to the teachers who made a difference

Teachers change lives. Here, SmartBrief editors talk about the teachers who made a difference in our worlds and the lessons we learned from them.

10 min read


Apples on books


Teachers change lives. Every. Day. Each time they walk into the classroom, a student’s world is made better. 

So we want to say thank you. In honor of Teacher Appreciation Week, SmartBrief editors and writers share memories of their favorite teachers and the lessons learned from them. 

First there was Mrs. Rothermel. I was spellbound the first time she read to us from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “On the Bank of Plum Creek.” I fell in love with Laura, Mary, Baby Carrie, Ma, Pa and Jack. I disliked Nellie Oleson. I was fascinated with the dugout, horehound candy (which Mrs. Rothermel brought in one day for us) and Ma’s vanity cakes. 

I begged my parents to buy the book series for me for Christmas. When they did, I devoured the set. I spent hours lost in Laura’s trials and adventures on the plains of Minnesota. Those books kicked off my love for reading, which I hold (and get paid to do) to this day. 

And then there was Mr. Perry. I hated math as a kid and I felt like numbers hated me back. Fractions were a particular thorn for me. So when it came time for me to take algebra I in high school, I was a mess. The equations and theories flew over my head at the speed of light.

So it’s good that I had Mr. Perry as my ninth-grade algebra I teacher. He was direct and tough (he was also the basketball coach and athletic director), but not impatient or unkind. He seemed to have powers with students like me who were lost but couldn’t articulate what confused us. Thanks to Mr. Perry’s patience and teacher powers, I passed algebra I.

Years later, when my daughter was in a dual-enrollment high school and had to take a math course at the local community college, I was thrilled to see Mr. Perry was teaching there. She took his class and I dropped in to see him after school one day. 

He looked wonderful. Older, but still handsome with sharp, friendly eyes. He peered at me over his glasses after I introduced myself and told him what year I graduated. He studied me for several seconds.

“Namahoe. Sprinter,” he growled at me. I beamed. I had been a standout sprinter and long jumper in high school. I was stunned that he remembered.

“Yes sir. That was me — a long time ago,” I answered, nodding and laughing. We spent a few minutes catching up. He wanted to know who I knew in his class. When I pointed to the chair where my daughter sat, he smiled. “Ahh yes. Kawai. The high schooler,” he answered. 

Mr. Perry quickly became one of Kawai’s favorite teachers also. “He’s adorable! And I don’t hate math in his class,” she told me. Like her mother, Kawai struggled with math. But in Mr. Perry’s class, she learned to make friends with it.

So thank you, Mrs. Rothermel and Mr. Perry. A gangly, chatty, socially-awkward kid with an unusual name fell in love with reading and learned to respect math because of you two. 

– Kanoe Namahoe, director of content, SmartBrief Education and Business Services 


I think fondly of the many teachers who taught me important life lessons. Among them:

Surprises stick with you.
Mrs. Richmond in kindergarten lauded my spelling ability, and she taught us about wonder and awe on the last day of school when she took off her wig to reveal her bald head. We had no idea!

Silliness rocks.
I had my first male teacher in third grade. Mr. Fader loved humor, showed us to draw a house in perspective and taught us to count to 10 in Japanese.

Structure matters.
 In middle school, Mrs. Rinnan fed my fascination with writing structure by making us memorize all the prepositions and master punctuation. We also had to understand the parts of speech well enough to race another student in labeling each word of a sentence on the blackboard.

Serious work deserves a place in life.
 My ninth-grade English teacher, Mrs. Davis, was truly dedicated to the finer points of literature and composition. She had very high expectations. Hers was my first English class that I couldn’t coast through — and I loved it.

Seeing is understanding.
 Mr. Barnes, my high-school history teacher, was one of the few I had who told stories instead of giving lectures. He set scenes so we could see beyond memorized dates and names to the thoughts and feelings behind important parts of history.

Seize what others see in you.
One of my journalism professors, Mr. Patterson, saw way more potential in me than I did. He hounded me to apply for a coveted national internship in New York City, which I actually won (!), and it led to an early, life-altering magazine career. (Forty years later, I’ve finally come around to his view of the Oxford comma.)

— Diane Benson Harrington, SmartBrief education writer and education Originals coordinator


The teachers that positively affected me the most — the ones I still think of as an adult with five school-age children of my own — are the ones who showed me kindness in the moments when I needed it.

The one who stands out most to me is Mrs. Moore, my first-grade teacher who welcomed me into her classroom halfway through the school year. She didn’t scold me for crying a few times per day, or even when I fell asleep once during a read-aloud.

She didn’t know that my whole world had been overturned in the months before I joined her class; that my dad had lost a job, our family had lost a home, and that I had lost all my neighborhood friends when we were forced to move back to the hometown where my parents grew up — over six hours from the only home, and school, I’d ever known.

She didn’t know how much I missed my best friend, or how much sleep I was losing to anxiety, or that I was eating free lunch every day. Well, knowing Mrs. Moore, she likely knew some of that.

She just saw a child who needed an extra person, a safe place, to come every day and just “be.” She knew I wouldn’t be able to learn if I didn’t first feel welcomed, loved and accepted. She greeted me with a hug and always smiled when I approached her desk. She made me feel like I was enough, just as I was, whatever that looked like on a particular day.

By the end of that school year, I was a different kid — one who could go a whole day, or two, without crying. I was a student who not only could read proficiently, but did it voraciously. I was confident, but not because I was particularly advanced in any of my academic subjects. I was able to adapt to the new life my family was facing because I had a safe place — and a safe face — to see every day when I went to school. Thank you, Mrs. Moore. I hope you’re still flashing warm smiles to first graders.

— Katie Parsons, associate director of content, SmartBrief Education and Business Services


I used to hate reading. Especially in school when I was told which books to read and sent to the “girls” section of the library to find books. This made me hate reading because none of the books interested me. Fairy tales and make-believe so contrived and absurd that it was laughable. I’ve never been a fan of authority so pushing back was natural for me.

When I was in sixth grade, I got another dreaded reading assignment: go home, read the newspaper and bring in an interesting story. The newspaper? You cannot be serious?

My teacher, Dr. Boyd R. Cox, explained to the class that the newspaper is written so that students our age — 12-ish — could understand it and learn about the world. I loved Dr. Cox. And Kermit, his green pickup truck. And his full head of thick, cloud-white hair. He was brilliant. But this assignment? What was he thinking?

So I tried to trust him. I read the newspaper. I don’t remember how many days we were supposed to read it. Maybe a weekend.

Verdict — My. Mind. Was. Blown.

This was during the 1981-82 school year — think Carter-Reagan, the Cold War, US hostages in Iran and too many other manmade and natural disasters around the world to count.
I read about things that I never could have imagined. Apartheid? Really? This is happening now? In 1982? In South Africa? It was a complete outrage. Truth was stranger than any fiction.

At some point later, I nervously stood in front of the class to explain the article I had chosen, about a group of sick children going on a trip to a Disney park. When I looked up from the newsprint shaking in my hands, I could see that my peers looked as shocked as I was that these children had a disease that was going to kill them at a young age.

I did not hate reading. I hated what I was being assigned — fiction, which turned me off from reading. My teacher showed me that there are many things available to read. I eventually decided to become a journalist, my career of nearly 30 years.

I still love nonfiction — biographies, books that explore historic events, studies and research, anything how-to and self-help, travel guides, cookbooks. Oh, the many cookbooks.

And everything for my job here at SmartBrief. I read and process news all day long. And I owe this passion that I have for news and reading to my wonderful teacher, Dr. Cox, who changed my life. We’re friends on Facebook. Seriously! We are!

— Trigie Ealey, editor, SmartBrief Education 


Why would a shorthand teacher send her class to the science fair? I know this sounds like a counterintuitive choice for an instructor to make, but Carol Kelley chose exactly the right course of action on a spring day in 1982. Our classmate, Debbie, who was within months of graduation, had passed away right before school had started that day, and the entire school family was in shock. We all sat at our desks, numb.

“We’re going to the science fair,” she said.

We didn’t pay any more attention to the science fair presentations than to our usual course of studies that day, but we went to a different space, away from the classroom we had shared with our classmate, Debbie, for so long. We were walking rather than sitting, which was therapeutic in its own way. I think Mrs. Kelley, as a grieving teacher, needed a moment for self-care too.

We were gifted an intermission in a tragic play we hadn’t planned to attend.

Shorthand (and the need to teach it) has gone away. Unfortunately, though, schools still experience catastrophic situations and student mental health is arguably more precarious than ever.

There are times when teachers need to put aside rigid lesson plans to tune in to their students’ hearts. Mrs. Kelley was ahead of her time in knowing that, and I’ve always been grateful.

— Paula Kiger, freelance writer, SmartBrief