This post is written by member Nicole Erb.
I am a reasonably organized person, but from the pile of boxes and binders of old teaching paraphernalia I’ve collected, you might never know it. These materials, many of which I shuffled across state lines and through multiple school districts, finally demanded my attention as my husband and I arranged our belongings after moving into a new house last month. On a cool spring afternoon, I commenced the bittersweet task of sorting through my classroom memories.
Amidst outdated student rosters, forgotten PD resources, and neglected lessons, an unexpected treasure waited to be rediscovered. As I glanced at the next sheet to be filed or discarded, the words at the top of the page transported me back to my first years of teaching. “Dear Ms. Shelpman, I would like to thank you for all that you have done for me,” the letter began, and I read the rest of the letter slowly, savoring the words from a favorite former student.
Though this young woman had never officially been in my class, as an actress in the musicals I choreographed and as a participant in the ballroom club I started, she was still my student and appreciated me as an important mentor in her high school education. I remembered receiving this letter in the last week of her junior year, days before I left my first teaching position to move across the country. This letter, along with a framed photo of the two of us, is one of the best teacher gifts I have ever received.
While I treasured her appreciation immensely at the time, revisiting this letter showed me how much more I needed these words now. As a district project associate, I do not currently have a classroom of my own, and I often reflect on my teaching years, considering what I would change and how I could have been a better educator. These reflections bring a mixture of both pride and discouragement; for every classroom success I remember, I cannot help but recall the students I know I did not reach. A particularly difficult end of my last school year had given my doubts and worries extra weight, but this letter provided a powerful reminder of why I became a teacher in the first place—to make a difference in my students’ lives. As I consider how to best serve students in the next stage of my career, I am grateful for the wonderful memories that this letter has rekindled.
During my first year of teaching, my colleagues advised me to make a “happy box” to save treasures like this gift. Though I failed to heed their advice at the time, the mementos I recently rediscovered now safely rest in a special place, and I echo my mentors’ message about the importance of protecting these treasures. The end of the school year, though exhilarating, can also be daunting, with reminders of shortcomings, of intentions never realized, of growing pressures for the next year. I encourage educators to celebrate their successes by gathering, revisiting, and rediscovering the precious treasures that capture the joys of teaching.
My student left me with the following quote by Robert Frost: “There are two kinds of teachers: the kind that fill you with so much quail shot that you can’t move, and the kind that just gives you a little prod behind and you jump to the skies.” I know that this student has gone far since her high school days, and it is now my turn to thank her for everything she has done for me.
Nicole Erb is a district project associate for the Education Achievement Authority in Detroit. She previously taught in Indiana and Massachusetts, and she remains an English teacher at heart. Nicole has been an NCTE member since 2010. (linkedin.com/in/nicolemarieerb)