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Drawing Inspiration From the Best and the Worst

[Editor's note: Little Miss Sunshine is a second-year teacher in an elementary school in Queens.]

As professional educators, most of us can point to that one great teacher who encouraged us to work hard, challenged us with new ideas and ultimately inspired us to follow this career path. But recently I started to think about that teacher’s opposite: the worst teacher I ever had, the one who brought me down and made me feel small.

I remember it clearly: I was sitting in my 3rd-grade classroom, front row center, working on a reading comprehension exercise, when Ms. G walked over to me and asked why I hadn’t answered any of the questions at the bottom of the page. When I explained that I was still reading the passage, she said, “You are not smart enough to be in school — how did you ever get in? You should go live with your grandparents. Maybe they will do a better job than your mother is doing.” These words have stayed with me ever since. It was the first moment in my life when I made a conscious decision to give up.

Those haunting words helped mold a student who not only avoided hard work but also lacked the self-confidence to even try. I was a freshman in high school with a 1.5 GPA and no interest in changing my ways. I was headed down a destructive path.

That is, until I had a meeting with Mr. Cordero, my 9th-grade English teacher, who sat me down at the end of the school year and told me that out of all his students I “confused” him the most. He said though I had earned no higher than a 70 on any assignment in his class, he was very impressed with my writing ability. He made a point to say that he could tell that halfway through my essays I would “give up” and end them “sloppily.” I had never impressed a teacher before, and once his words sunk in they began to overshadow Ms. G’s put-down from years before.

After that meeting, I turned it all around. I spent 10th grade catching up on the work I had slacked off in the years before, bringing my grades to the mid-80s. In 11th grade, I found myself on the honor roll, and stayed there until I graduated.

Mr. Cordero had a way with the troubled students, a way that empowered them to excel in the areas they feared most. My story is not unfamiliar; every year hundreds of students drop out of schools all over New York, and I can’t help but wonder how many of those students could have graduated if only they had a “Mr. Cordero” in their lives.

We must always remember that just one mean-hearted comment can stay with a student long after she leaves our classroom. If I am having a bad day, if I’m stressed out or frustrated with my students, if I’m about to boil over, I try to think of Ms. G. It’s a way to remind myself that whatever is going on inside or outside the classroom, it’s never worth it to say something that will turn me into the worst teacher one of my students ever had.

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