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Every year at this time, as the kids go back to school, I can’t help but reflect on my own years as a student and then as an elementary classroom teacher. This year, my third grade teacher, Mrs. S, has been in my thoughts not only for who she was but for the part she played in developing my beliefs about the role of a teacher.

Third grade could have been a difficult year for me. We were an Air Force family and we had recently moved from Ramstein, Germany back to the states. I had been in an elementary school, on the base in Europe, where a new student was somewhat of a regular occurrence. That was not the case in the public school in Forestville, Maryland. I was a bit shy and Mrs. S. made sure that the transition was as painless as possible. It’s ironic I actually don’t remember much about her except that she had grayish blonde hair, was pregnant, and put her arm around my shoulders…often.

Many years later, during one of those reflecting back discussions with my mom, the topic of school and my third grade year came up. I was shocked to find out that my mom and dad initially had reservations about Mrs. S. I can’t remember exactly what my parents’ concerns were but it had something to do with her academic goals for the year or her professionalism. But my mother was very clear about the reason that they kept me in the class. “You needed a safe, loving environment. We had just upset your little world with a big move and it was most important to us that you went to school each day feeling happy and secure. Mrs. S did that for you.”

My college days, that were spent preparing for a teaching career, were filled with courses and lessons on learning theories, best teaching practices, and the gentle nature of the young child’s psyche. Those topics were repeatedly addressed over the course of my teaching career. But as the years progressed, we talked  more and more about test scores and the importance of students being able to compete in a global economy. Ahhh…that global economy. I have read several articles, over the years, that say there is a  characteristic among American entrepreneurs that makes them unique. That characteristic is their willingness to fail and then try again. Our culture does not really view failure as failing unless one gives up trying.

If one of our strengths, as a nation, comes from our people who are not afraid of failure, then we need to start when students are young, encouraging them to be all that they can be, to take risks knowing they have the safety net of caring teachers for support. It goes without saying that we need to have classrooms that provide students with academic opportunities but we also need to provide some emotional support as well. Adults, in our schools, need to “put their arms around the shoulders” of their students whether it’s in protecting them from bullies, encouraging them to believe in themselves, or just giving support during life’s scary times.

I sincerely hope that as our nation struggles to improve an educational system, that seems to be failing so many, we don’t underestimate the value of demonstrating tenderness. I had a teacher who exhibited compassion towards me, over 40 years ago, and I never forgot it. It made a difference then. It can make a difference now.