Under the Influence

By Peter L DeHaan

In college, my daughter majored in English and minored in Math; her focus – and passion, however – was elementary education. Although reports abound of a teacher shortage, that is not the case in our area. With above average compensation and several respected local schools churning out qualified educators, there is a glut of teachers seeking employment. The all too typical result is that aspiring teachers are relegated to substitute teaching for a time before landing that coveted full-time position. Their other option is to move out of state.

I had endeavored to brace my daughter for the likelihood of subbing for a year or two, thereby gaining experience, acquiring confidence, and building a reputation. Indeed, that did seem to be her path. With scores of applications submitted, backed by a strong resume, an impressive portfolio, and a voluminous website to match, nary an interview had been granted.

After months of waiting, her first interview finally occurred. Then there was a second interview, which was followed by an offer of employment. That fall, she began teaching first grade and influencing the next generation.

I don’t recall too much about my own first grade teacher. I do know that I really liked her and heard my parents say, on numerous occasions, that Mrs. Frank had given me a great start in school, a strong foundation on which future teachers could effectively build.

Another stellar educator who was highly influential was Miss Robinson, my fourth grade teacher. Our class was a challenge to her – a good challenge. Many of us had been in a “split” room the year before, half third grade and half fourth grade. Once our third grade assignments were complete, we were allowed to do fourth grade work. The result was the Miss Robinson inherited a batch of students who had already mastered much of the fourth grade curriculum. She worked hard to provide us with additional lessons and opportunities that would keep us motivated and challenged, without similarly handicapping our fifth grade teacher. One such instance was a science module on electricity. I was mesmerized. Little did I know that this would serve as the impetus for continuing interest and a subsequent vocation, leading me down a varied and unpredictable, but most fulfilling career path.

We moved that summer and I started at a new school. I quickly realized three things. I was way ahead in math, hopelessly behind in grammar, and had been placed in the wrong class by the school secretary. It is said that teachers often give more attention to students on the edges, both those with great promise, as well as those who struggle. My knowledge and understanding of things unfamiliar to my peers, catapulted me to a position of prominence. The result was that my teacher gave me special attention and esteem, while my classmates viewed me with academic awe and respect. Although I didn’t learn much academically that year, I did undergo a metamorphous of self-perception. Put succinctly, I began fifth grade as an above average student who felt average and ended the year as an above average student who was convinced he was exceptional. That single attitudinal change altered the trajectory of my educational path – and ultimately my life. Yes, Mrs. Wedel influenced me immensely.

In seventh grade, I had Mr. Snow for English. It was clear that he loved to teach and equally apparent that he loved seventh graders. He invested extra time and effort in me during lunch and after school, getting me caught up on my grammar and punctuation. Our class read and studied, Dickens’ classic story, A Christmas Carol. Mr. Snow helped us dig into this timeless tale and mine its many truths. The conclusion was inescapable for me and equally profound. Like Dickens’ Scrooge, we have a choice on how we live our life; it can be for selfish purposes or it can be for the joy of living and the benefit of others. I chose the later.

That year I also had Mr. Binder for science. He was a strict and demanding instructor with high expectations – and I feared him – at least in the classroom. However, he also faithfully served as my track coach for five years, where he functioned in a much different role and with significant influence on me. It was on the track where I learned many of life’s important issues and where I experienced my happiest moments as a teen. Although I was not an athlete, athletic opportunities – via a highly effective teacher/coach – helped to shape me more than anything learned in the classroom.

In high school it was Mr. Grosser who affected me greatly. With a passion for molding young minds, he was part educator and part entertainer. There was never a dull moment in his classroom, where the unexpected became routine. Sometimes he addressed the course material; at other times he digressed. Regardless, throughout it all, he wanted us to think, profoundly and deeply. His influence was significant and helped me mature as an individual and prepare for adulthood.

The standout mentor of my college years was professor Britten. Intellectual and insightful, he quietly communicated profundity with ease, effectiveness, and aplomb. I found myself hanging on every word. Nothing he said was wasted and everything had significance. He was the teacher whose class one took, not because of the subject material, but because of the instructor.

These are but some of the teachers who highly influenced me, they are the best of the best. Aside from academia, I have had many notable “teachers” in the business world as well – some may even be reading this article. Although not teachers, per se, they are nonetheless educators and have played a role in guiding me to become the person that I am today.

If you are a teacher, be encouraged that you are influencing others – even if you don’t know it. You may never be affirmed by those you teach, but you are making a difference, to every student, every year.

If you are not a teacher, know that you, too, influence others. Whether a business owner, a manager, a supervisor, or a front-line employee, you influence those around you by what you do, the things you say, and how you treat others.

Like Scrooge, you can either influence negatively by pursuing a life of selfish inward concern or influence positively by choosing to make a difference in others by sharing, giving, and influencing them in an encouraging and profound manner. Although they may seldom thank you for the role you play in their lives, know that you are making a significantly lasting and notable impact as you pursue the path of positive influence.

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