When I told a dear friend I helped start GlobalMindED's #MyAPlusEducator campaign to recognize educators making a world of difference, she put me in touch with her friend Jan. Just back from her 50th high school reunion at Sweet Home Central High School in Amherst, New York, Jan had an amazing story about one teacher who influenced a group of very different students, one of which was her.
The teacher was her high school art teacher Mrs. Neis. Because of Mrs. Neis' encouraging and inspiring teaching style, Jan went on to get a Bachelor's in Art Education before starting her twenty-eight year career as a psychotherapist. Mrs. Neis influenced Jan's first career choice by recognizing her unique strengths and treating her as a talented person. Throughout her adult life she has continued to do art as a hobby and as her own "therapy." Now as a retired person, Jan is taking Botanical Illustration and volunteering to teach prisoners art, combining her love for art and therapy to transform people's lives.
But Jan wasn't the only person impacted after 50 years by Mrs. Neis. While Jan was the homecoming queen, straight A student and part of the "in" crowd, Melinda was an independent thinker of the first degree continually pressing the boundaries of conventionality. Melinda adored Mrs. Neis and learned pastels and organics which she still enjoys today. She went to law school and in mid-life changed careers to become a hair dresser. To her credit, Mrs. Neis could inspire students both on and off the grid.
The greatest impact of Mrs. Neis is perhaps not with these two women, but with a wild-and-crazy guy named Lee who was always in trouble. At home, Lee's family was chaotic and unstable. "Mrs. Neis was my refuge," said Lee at the 50th reunion. Mrs. Neis hired Lee to do her yard work. The faith she placed in him taught him lessons he couldn't learn in school -- how to do a good job, keep his word, take pride in his efforts, be accountable to a schedule and follow through. "She knew that getting me away from my home was a life saver," he admitted. The life preserver Mrs. Neis sent Lee not only taught him art, but taught him how to have a long career with IBM, how to be there for 42 years of marriage, how to be a great dad of two children and grandfather to four. She provided a model of long-term stability in Lee's life on which he could pattern his own life.
During their senior year, John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Lee sat in the back of the class in the art room, his eyes filled with tears. "It's okay to feel, Lee," Mrs. Neis said, imparting what was arguably the greatest lesson of all to a man who just as easily could have wound up indigent or in prison.
This is the story of three very different students who were influenced by the same gifted, loving art teacher. Mrs. Neis made a world of difference and these people's lives were forever improved because of her capacity to see their gifts and talents and hold them each to their highest standards.
While she taught art, she really taught lessons about life and the dispositions that allowed her students to be successful personally and professionally. While we might think educating is about content, it is also about imparting life skills to young people so that they can not only learn, but thrive in their adult lives.
Who is the one educator who had the greatest impact on your life? Share your story in the comments or by posting your story to Facebook or LinkedIn with the hashtag #MyAPlusEducator.