NOTE: In honor of Teacher Appreciation Week, Fordham Ohio staffers will be blogging about teachers, principals, and guidance counselors who made a positive difference in their schooling and in their lives. This is the first post. The second post can be found here; the third can be found here; the fourth (which also celebrates National Charter Schools Week) can be found here.
When you’re working in education policy, it can be easy to forget that, ultimately, teachers not state law have the biggest impact on students. Looking back at my own life, I can think of a half dozen educators that not only taught me an incredible amount but also transformed the way I learned and thought. Teacher appreciation week seems like a perfect time to recognize one of those teachers.
My fourth grade teacher at Longfellow Elementary School in Clinton, Iowa, was Mrs. Sherwood. Donna Sherwood, I had to search for her first name as she’s only ever been Mrs. Sherwood to me, was a tough teacher. She was demanding, and, in retrospect, I’m pretty sure I didn’t make her life easy.
Fourth grade was my first year at Longfellow. I’d moved from a smaller town, Camanche, that borders Clinton when my mom got married to my step-father. It’s hard adjusting to a new town, new school, and new family. To be honest, I’d gotten into my fair share trouble in 2nd and 3rd grade. My report cards routinely noted that I “talked too much,” “didn’t follow instructions,” etc. I’d been to the office a few times, and my grades were mediocre.
Not unexpectedly, I started fourth grade rather slowly. The first quarter parent teacher conference was especially rough. I remember my mom—rather unhappily—coming home from meeting my teacher. Apparently, my sterling wit hadn’t impressed Mrs. Sherwood. She made it clear that she expected more from me. None of my grades were especially good, but the D in penmanship really hurt.
I vowed to my mom that I would do better. I did. I worked harder and tried to focus on more than being entertaining to my classmates. Mrs. Sherwood was there every step of the day, always demanding more.
My most vivid fourth grade memory—it still feels like yesterday—came later in the year. We were all quietly working at our desks, and Mrs. Sherwood called my best friend and I back to her desk. My heart sank and stomach churned as I tried to figure out what we’d done wrong.
When we got to her desk, she asked us to look at a couple of rows of numbers on her desk. After a short time, she asked if we knew what we were looking at and what it meant. We both shook our heads. She said that these were our results from the Iowa Test of Basic Skills and that these results showed that “we could do anything in life we wanted.” She made it clear that it would only happen with hard work and she’d be expecting even more from us going forward.
A tremendous sense of pride washed over me. I believed probably for the first time that I could succeed. Over the next eight years, I worked hard to do my very best at everything I did. When I graduated from high school, I became the first person in my immediate family to do so. College, law school, a rewarding career, and an amazing family followed.
It started with Mrs. Sherwood believing in me and my potential and challenging me to be my best. Her method was undoubtedly unorthodox, but she had an enduring impact on me and helped me to lead a better life.
Mrs. Sherwood passed away in 2015, and I’m profoundly sorry that I didn’t take the opportunity to properly thank her. To Mrs. Sherwood and teachers everywhere: Thank you for believing in your students’ potential, thank you for challenging us, and thank you for opening doors we didn’t know existed.