Most days I can't recall what I ate for breakfast. The passwords necessary to access my work files and bank accounts often escape me. But I can remember the names my favorite childhood teachers—the really great ones, who helped me along to an educational breakthrough, whether mastery of multiplication (Mrs. Tuttle) or my first long-form essay (Ms. Price). I also saw the impact of great teachers in my home while growing up, as my parents, both teachers, were both loved by many of their students. And now I see it as a parent as well.
I met more greats recently as I helped host the 2014 Blackboard Awards, given annually to New York City teachers by New York Family magazine. As the award recipients spoke, I learned a little about what has helped these educators flourish. They're things you could look for in your own child's educational experience and qualities that might make you speak up to say thank you during the final days of the school year:
A great teacher considers herself a student too: Many of the instructors spoke about how they've never stopped learning on the job. Fran Vogel, band director at MS 167, the Robert F. Wagner Middle School, has taught for 23 years, yet she says, "I consider myself a student. I am still learning. I've learned about patience, and not to get too attached to what I need in the classroom."
A great teacher works in an environment of trust. Lisa Schalk, who teaches nursery at Chelsea Day School, praised the administrators at her school who, "trust me to run my classroom the way I feel it should be run." Schalk, who became a teacher in her late 40s after a first career as an advertising copywriter, knew a great deal about how a business runs when she came to her classroom. Having supervisors who respected her knowledge helped her thrive.
A great teacher knows each day is precious. At age 74, Eileen Shostack, a special education teacher at PS 75, has been teaching for 44 years and has seen first-hand how quickly childhood passes many times over. "Education is a race," she says. "Every day in a child's life is precious."
A great teacher knows it's ok to fail "I have been fortunate to be at a school where teachers are encouraged to try and fail, and I did so—spectacularly," said Bayard Faithfull, a social-studies teacher at The Beacon School. In order for kids to learn, we have to let them get comfortable with failing—how can they do that if we don't model the behavior for them?
Back to School: Advice for Every Grade
Photograph: New York Family Editor Eric Messinger celebrating with honoree Eileen Shostack, who at 74 may well be the oldest active teacher in NYC public school system. She's a 5th grade special needs teacher at PS 75.