How Teachers Thrive//

Stephanie Ruhle: Saying Thanks to the Teacher Who Changed My Son’s Life

As we celebrate start of summer, join me in thanking an educator who made your kid better. Here's my family's story.

skynesher / Getty Images
skynesher / Getty Images

Sure, many teachers feel the love during the last week of school, often in the form of Starbucks gift cards and Bath & Body Works baskets. They may even get a shout-out during a graduation speech at the end of the year if they’re lucky.

When Senator Kamala Harris released her plan to increase teacher pay, she introduced us to Frances Wilson, a teacher who made a lasting impression on her during childhood. She didn’t thank Wilson for teaching her methods to increase her standardized test scores, or credit the teacher’s lessons for her admission into a good college. She remembered Wilson for the “sense of hope and courage” she instilled during some of the most formative years of the senator’s life.

The most consequential teachers don’t just provide our children with an education. They tell them how they can best use it. They help them realize their own potential, or how they can chart their own path forward.

Our country’s educators are not just random strangers assigned to our child’s classroom for nine months. They are their role models and second parents. Teachers spend more time with our kids than anyone else — and during some of the most formative years of their lives. Learning state capitals and algebra equations are just the tip of the iceberg.

Sometimes a teacher’s efforts are the catalyst for a presidential campaign, as is the case for Mrs. Wilson.

Sometimes, the product is more subtle — but no less significant.

I would know, because one very special educator changed the outcome for my son in a way I never could’ve myself.

My eldest is 13 years old. He is charming and outgoing, a solid athlete and talented waterman, happiest on his Opti sailboat. And now, he is a strong student — a phrase I never would’ve used to describe him only five years ago when his academic woes had our family in a state of crisis. My son was in second grade when we learned his brain worked a little bit different than most. He was struggling to learn how to read, falling further and further behind his classmates with each passing day. I could see him withdrawing from the classroom, losing his mojo, and begging to come home early whenever he had the chance. His efforts to finish homework often turned to loud screams and frustrated cries before dinner was even on the table.

I was at a loss — both my husband and I never struggled in school. We aced all of our standardized tests, graduated college, and both held incredibly demanding intellectual jobs.

How could this possibly be happening? I was sure he simply wasn’t trying hard enough.

After a couple of tests, I wasn’t so sure anymore. As the school year came to a close, the school psychologist told us our son had a learning disability: He was dyslexic.

I didn’t question the diagnosis itself — the counselor was absolutely right. My son did see words and letters differently, which greatly affected his ability to read. I wish, though, I had challenged the words she had used. Months later, when I had the privilege of first meeting Dr. Jay Russell of the Windward School, he put into words what I couldn’t all those years ago: My son did not suffer from a learning disability. He just learned differently.

And he is not alone. Not even close. According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities, one in five people identify as having a learning difference. Contrary to popular belief, these differences have no impact on general intelligence. But when these children are misdiagnosed, or not diagnosed at all, problems arise. I think about kids I went to school with who disappeared as school became more and more challenging. They were called “slow” and left to fend for themselves in a one-size-fits-all system. That could just as easily have been my own son.

Likening these kinds of learning differences as weaknesses is a dangerous game. I know now that had I continued down that road, my son’s reading challenges would’ve quickly turned into disciplinary ones. There’s data to back this up, too: Half of all students with learning disabilities are suspended during their schooling, while one in three are held back, one in four are depressed and one in five ultimately drop out.

Dr. Russell knows the stakes are high. That’s why he has devoted his career to equipping teachers around the country with the tools to teach all students successfully — not just those who learn more traditionally. Dr. Jay Russell knew that my son wanted to learn — he just wasn’t in an environment that gave him the right resources to do so.

This realization has made all of the difference for my son. I am always happy when he brings home a good grade on a math test, or finishes a book he was intimidated by when he started. These feats are no joke — and surely would not be possible without his teachers’ lessons.

But I am most proud when I reflect on the young man my son is growing into. When I see those glimpses of the confident child he was before he was made to feel “less than” for his learning difference. And as much as I would like to take credit for his good character and confidence, I know I have his educators to thank —those men and women who are inspiring him to be the best he can be between the pop quizzes and homework checks. I am humbled by Dr. Jay Russell’s work: Through one school, he has trained thousands of teachers to change the lives of students who learn differently.

I know he is not the only one.

This year, there were a whole lot of headlines about cutting corners in the hyper-competitive, academic race to the top. While some sunk to their lowest in effort to “be the best,” there were teachers across the country who plowed ahead, giving their students the foundations to succeed on and off paper.

For some, that means four years at Amherst. For others, it may be admission into a vocational technology program, or a gap year spent hiking the Appalachian trail.

We cannot predict the outcome for our children. But thanks to some incredible educators, we can end another school year knowing our children are better off than they were when they started.

So, as summer vacation commences, I ask that you join me in thanking an educator that made this year special. Not just the ones who wrote your daughter a glowing recommendation to her dream school, or helped your son ace the final exam. I’m talking about the people who have made our children better.

The men and women who have spent more waking hours with our kids than we have — and made a difference in the lives of you and your family as a result.

Let’s recognize those teachers working tirelessly every single day to change the game for their students. I’d bet the impact of just a couple of kind words will last longer than any soap set on the shelf.

This article originally appeared on nbcnews.com


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