|Look for the Helpers...Let's Fill Their Happy Files|
Parents, Guardians & Staff,
For the past 14 years, as the superintendent of a school district, I have had the privilege to welcome new staff … teachers, librarians, counselors, social workers, nurses, coaches and support staff, into one of the best professions that exists. Those who dedicate their lives to the vocation of working with children are special individuals. They do not go into teaching for the high pay, perks or stock options. For the vast majority, they enjoy the work and want to make a difference.
Often, they are drawn to the profession by their own experience with a teacher or coach who deeply affected their lives. Some of you know I grew up the son of a first-grade teacher. My mom loved the profession. As a child, I remember sweating in an Illinois classroom in August without air conditioning, helping her set up her classroom. My mom worked hard; she worked long hours …. But she loved the kids, her colleagues and the work.
As a freshman in high school, I was lost. I attended an all-boys high school on the edge of Chicago, where I did not know any other students. I still remember feeling all alone when I entered the cafeteria, looked around and felt there was nowhere friendly to land. Being a very quiet kid, not very athletic, I just didn’t fit in. Two things saved me. First, I was a decent saxophone player, and the jazz band director welcomed me into the group. But more critically, an older Italian gentleman, Mr. Maniola, assured my mom not to worry about “Tommy,” that he would look out for me.
Mr. Maniola was kind. Now that I think of it, he was Mr. Rogers before Mr. Rogers. He made me feel special. Prior to my freshman year Algebra class, math was not my thing. But I was not going to let Mr. Maniola down. I liked him, and he taught math, and that meant I would do whatever it took to please him. I worked harder for him than for any of my other teachers.
Late in his life, Mr. Maniola lost his sight. Nonetheless, a small group of students would drive to his home and drive him back and forth each day to the high school so he could tutor students. Before his death, I wrote him a letter thanking him, which led to a wonderful last phone call. He was so proud I had become a teacher.
For the last eight of 14 years, when I welcome new teachers into the district, I have shown a Ted Talk by the late Rita Pearson, a former elementary teacher from Houston ISD. She makes the point that teaching is about relationships, stating, “Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.” She too was the child of a teacher who worked extremely hard during her entire career. Ms. Pearson and I both shared the experience of attending our mother’s funerals, where we shed tears as we listened to story after story of how our moms affected the lives of countless former students.
My mom told me early in my teaching career (HS math …. thank you, Mr. Maniola), to create a “Happy File.” And anytime I received a positive note or card from a student, colleague or parent, to save it in my “Happy file.” She wisely told me there would be days when I would be exhausted, discouraged, feel unappreciated and be ready to quit …. and before I did, I should make some tea, find a quiet place and read the gems in my “Happy File.”
People don’t write letters or cards in the same frequency they used to …. email, text messages, posts, yes …. but letters/cards, rarely. In some ways, that is sad, but about a year ago … I was still touched, albeit through a modern communication vehicle.
A former student, who I had not seen since he was in my high school AP Calculus class over 20 years ago “found me” on Facebook, and via Messenger, sent me a message. As I was racing through my day, I glanced at my phone, read his words and was stopped in my tracks. His message read:
I had forgotten about Bob, one of the thousands of students who I have taught or coached over the years …. but as I read his message, the memories came back. I distinctly remember talking to his mom, and while I cannot recall her exact words, I can still sense her fears, and I am so happy that at that moment, I was able to be a helper. I feel blessed I was able to watch after Bob as Mr. Maniola had watched over me.
We often share Mr. Rogers' quote, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
Yes, for many, now is a scary time… and there are many “helpers” out there. Nurses, doctors, EMT’s, even grocers …. the list goes on and on. But on this Teacher Appreciation Week, let’s take a minute and please not forget the teachers. Some teacher or coach …. helped you, touched you. As Mr. Rogers stated in a commencement address at Dartmouth, a person who “loved you into being the person you are today.” Please let them know by taking a few minutes, think of them, and if possible, send a note, a letter, a card, an email or even a social media message. Help fill that person’s Happy File.
And for our teachers… put this message in your personal Happy File, for you are amazing, talented, giving people. You are the helpers. You are appreciated now and forever. You will be remembered as a Mr. Maniola by someone and the difference you are making should always be kept in mind.
Stay safe, be well,
Dr. Tom Leonard
Superintendent of Schools