Grade Six Revisited: On Books, Trees and Great Teachers

Can a teacher have a lasting impact on the life of a student? 

Absolutely. 

Or at least that’s been my experience. 

It has been 40 years since I last sat in Miss Whitson’s Grade Six classroom at Green Glade Public School in Mississauga and yet I still feel her influence each and every day. 

Sometimes
it’s in little ways: I’ll start to write a sentence that ends in the
word “before” (“I’ve never had that kind of tea before”) and I’ll hear
her voice in my head asking “Before what?” (Ending a sentence with
“before” was one of her grammatical pet peeves!) 

But at other
times, her influence is bigger. Much bigger. I’ll be sitting at my desk,
trying to decide on a topic for an article or a book, and I’ll remember
her advice to my much younger self: “Write what you know.” It is advice
that’s served me well throughout my entire writing career. In fact, it
is advice that has defined my writing career

I
remember how she managed to set the bar high—but not too high—for her
students: high enough to motivate you to want to try your best, but not
so high that you were doomed to fall flat on your face. And if you dared
to aim high, but missed the mark, you knew she would be standing there
ready to cushion your fall and to encourage you to try again. You see,
she gave her students the gift of unconditional acceptance—a fierce
belief in our own worthiness as human beings and our ability to
contribute to the world. What an incredible gift to give a group of
eleven- and twelve-year-olds who were about to embark on the often rocky
journey known as the teenage years.

She fed our brains with literature (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
by C.S. Lewis comes to mind) and instilled in us an appreciation for
the natural world. Sometimes she managed to do both of these things at
once, taking us outdoors on days when it was too hot to do any work and
reading to us as we sat underneath the trees.

A year ago, I had
the opportunity to have dinner with Miss Whitson and a couple of my
former classmates—to reconnect and reminisce about our time in her
class. It soon became obvious that this memorable year in my life as a
student had been just as memorable for my former classmates as well. And
what stood out in our minds was how special we were made to feel by
this inspiring and compassionate teacher. 

Miss Whitson was an
educational visionary, practicing relationship-based teaching before
people were even talking about the importance of the teacher-student
bond. And they’re talking about it a lot these days. 

The subject came up during a recent conversation with Angela DePalma, Chair of the Council that governs the Ontario College of Teachers
(the regulatory body that licenses our teachers, sets high professional
and ethical standards, and approves teacher education programs) 

“Research shows that’s the relationship between teacher and student that has the greatest impact on learning,” she noted.

And on living, she might have added.

Four
decades after I walked out of Miss Whitson’s classroom for the very
last time, she continues to have an impact on the person I aspire to be
and the dreams I dare to pursue.

That is her legacy to me.

This blog post is part of a parent outreach and education campaign sponsored by the Ontario College of Teachers.

Follow Ann at AnnDouglas.net

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