Guest Column: Celebrate all teachers this challenging year

Published 8:45 pm Friday, April 1, 2022

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Guest Column by Mary Hinnenkamp

Recently, I watched the movie “To Sir with Love” starring Sidney Portier. I have watched it before, the first time in college, and it probably helped inspire me to become a teacher myself. Portier plays Mr. Thackeray, an engineer who reluctantly decides to teach in the slums of London.  He just needs a job. His students are rude, confrontational and do everything in their power to disrupt his class. He struggles to work with the materials he has and with the curriculum he is given. He insists that his students be respectful of him, other students and of themselves. It is when he realizes that he needs to connect with his students, to form a relationship with the students as individuals and as a class, that the students ultimately respond. At the end of the movie, “Sir” is offered the engineering job that was his career goal, but he finds teaching so satisfying, so meaningful, that he decides to stay.

Mary Hinnenkamp

Back in the real world, things are not so simple. A few weeks ago, I read an editorial in the Minneapolis Star Tribune written by a teacher in the Sartell District. She said she was exhausted, worn out with the long hours, the impossible demands, and she was giving up on teaching, a job she had always loved. A friend told me that his daughter had just quit after one too many verbal attacks by an angry parent. During a National Public Radio call-in-show a week ago, teachers who called in said that they and their students are exhausted by the stress, disruptions and uncertainty of the pandemic. In-person learning or online? Masks or no masks? Students sick with COVID. Exposures. Testing.  Lack of substitute teachers. Student mental health problems. Families in distress. No wonder some teachers have given up and want out.

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I no longer am in the classroom, but I stay in touch with friends who are still teaching. I attend meetings with teachers on the Teacher of the Year Committee, and I take classes with teachers to renew my license. I listen. I hear about the problems, but I also hear about teachers who are working on learning processes, on effective teaching strategies and on ways to de-escalate a child in crisis. I hear teachers talk with such admiration about colleagues who have helped them get through this difficult, frustrating school year using technology, patience and esprit de corps.

This year 87 teachers were nominated to be Teacher of the Year by students, parents or other teachers. The reasons people give for the nominations are telling. It seems that kids are just so happy to be back in school in-person again and nominated teachers who were fun, caring, encouraging, fair and funny. Parents’ nominations seemed to focus on teachers who are, first of all, knowledgeable and skilled.  But this year, parents also seemed to appreciate what their child’s teacher had done to “bring her out of her shell,” to make their child “believe that they can achieve anything they set their mind to,” and the teacher who had set in motion “vast improvements in behavior in school and at home.”  But the essence of what this year has been like comes from the nominations of the other teachers. They are inspired by a colleague who is “a ray of sunshine,” who “puts his heart and soul into his job,” who has “a roll up her sleeve ethic,” who “allows students to make and learn from mistakes,” who has “great insight,” “celebrates diversity,” “who sees the whole child,” and who “makes everyone around her better.” 

The goal of our committee, the Teacher of the Year Committee, is to celebrate good teachers and to acknowledge their hard work, their talent and the important role teachers play in the lives of the young people we care about. But I think that should be the role of every parent, grandparent and concerned adult:  Be grateful and thank a teacher for all they have done to be the rock for our children in this very tough year.

Next week, one teacher will be chosen as the teacher of the year. Let’s celebrate that choice, and let’s celebrate them all.

Mary Hinnenkamp is a member of the Albert Lea Teacher of the Year Committee.