Early this week I was informed that a professor who mentored me through my credential and master’s program—and beyond—had passed away. I was amazed at the effect this had on me, and I have come to realize that if there is anything to encourage a teacher to stay positive and passionate no matter what, it is the example set by a single teacher who did just that.
Jeanne was a tremendous life force to so many people. Always on the cutting edge of research and technology’s impact on education, she was involved in projects that improved the lives of children with disabilities while simultaneously and enthusiastically teaching and inspiring us to do the same. She was the kind of person who did not just visit us and teach us because it was what she was paid to do…it was her passion. She took us under her wing and shared everything she could with us. She gave us her love for this field.
I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a good educator. I’ve always appreciated my teachers, but some have had a bit more of a lasting impact on my life, one that I hope to someday impart on someone else’s life. Jeanne was one of those educators, and for me one of her greatest legacies was in how she handled difficult situations.Even as an adult in my credential classes, I remember noting occasional small changes in my instructors’ moods. I knew when some teachers were frustrated by our lack of participation, or upset with our lateness coming back from break. There were times I was possibly one of those students who made a teacher feel unappreciated.
Jeanne never drew attention to whether or not she felt we were distracted or disinterested. Instead, she redirected us, teaching us by example. I noticed that if we were tuning out, she told a story. If we were tired, she changed the format of the lesson. If we were having problems with our classes or family lives, she stopped and listened to us. She moved the class around us so that it was our class, rather than just one we were attending. Our learning was a group effort, and every one of us felt valued in the process.
Outside of our credential classes, Jeanne was our mentor and helped us transition into the teacher role. Becoming a special educator does not just mean getting a new job; it means learning to balance and integrate a whole new set of emotions into your life. There are frustrations and challenges that credential programs will never be able to fully replicate, and they have a funny way of seeping into our entire world. It’s hard to leave our work at school, and frequently we take it home with us.
When I think about what makes a good mentor, I realize it is so much more than just giving good advice, answering questions, and making sure your mentees are enjoying themselves at work. Being a good mentor means recognizing the whole process of becoming a teacher, and that is just what Jeanne did. She took us on and guided us through our new sense of life, as a whole. And her extraordinary personality and point of view encouraged me to learn and grow.
When mentors and educators are able to teach so much through their life’s work and outlook, rather than solely by what they ask us to read and write, it is a life-changing gift. I know for a fact that I will never read anything even remotely related to the brain and how it processes information (her passion) without thinking about Jeanne. She changed the way I saw my own life and its purpose, and I can only hope to be even a fraction of the teacher she was to us.
I hope to emulate these lessons in my own teaching, and perhaps someday help someone enter this field as joyfully and enthusiastically as I was helped. It’s altogether heartbreaking to lose someone who has led us so far—but uplifting to know they left footsteps for us to follow.