I remember her as if it were yesterday. Helen Shelton was my first grade teacher at James Whitcomb Riley School 43 in Indianapolis. While I owe my parents everything as it relates to making sure that I received a quality education, I owe Ms. Shelton a lot as well. She was the first person outside of my nuclear family who made me feel like I was smart and special. Ms. Shelton applauded me for anything and everything. "My, Kevin, I really like the way you did your alphabet today," she would say with a smile. "You are so smart!" Or, "Kevin, I just love the way you print and the way you hold your pencil. You are going to be such a good writer." And even when I refused to put the crayons back in the box the right way, she would celebrate my independence. "You know, Kevin, your way of organizing this box of crayons may be better than the people who made them. They are all so neat! I am so proud of you."
By the time I finished first grade, I believed two things: that I was the smartest person in the world and that I could be anything that I wanted to be.
As I reflect on how I was celebrated by Ms. Shelton, I also think about the kids whose teachers do not celebrate them or serve their needs. Like the highly regarded teacher who pulled me aside several years ago while I was talking to a seemingly precocious third grade boy at a school in far northeast Washington, DC. This teacher had a PhD and had been teaching third grade for more than 20 years at the school, which was located right near a public housing complex. She said to me, "Mr. Chavous, I saw you talking to that boy. He is one of the better ones, but we can only expect so much from these ghetto kids."
It doesn't happen often, but her comment literally rendered me speechless.
Without question, the single biggest determining factor to the success or failure of a child in school is his or her classroom teacher. We also know that most kids who drop out of school have experienced two to three consecutive years of bad teachers. While teaching styles vary, the magic of a good teacher is found in their setting high standards and high expectations for their students. These great teachers believe that every child can learn and they don't give up, no matter the odds.
To this very day, I smile when I think about Ms. Shelton. And I shed a tear in high school when I heard she had died. She helped me believe in myself because she believed in me. Does that third grade boy in that DC school have the same feeling when he thinks about his teacher? Probably not. And that's too bad. It has been said that teachers who inspire know that teaching is like cultivating a garden, and those who would have nothing to do with thorns must never attempt to gather flowers.
During this Teacher Appreciation Week and every week, let us honor those teachers who, like my Ms. Shelton, make education fun and inspire their students. After all, the best teachers teach from the heart, and not a book.