People often talk about how teachers had an impact on them. Though, there are many teachers who still remember students who touched them or did something to be remembered for. Here, teachers share stories of students they'll never forget.
Thank you to everyone who shared their story. If you'd like to see more be sure to click the source link at the bottom. Comments have been edited for clarity.
Working to improve your skills.
My first semester of grad school I was TA’ing a freshman level class in computer science. Freshman level computer science is well known for being very sink or swim, in my personal undergrad experience maybe 50-70% of computer science majors changed majors after the first semester.
While TA’ing this course I had one particular student named Ben. Ben wasn’t especially bright and had no previous experience programming. In a class of 90 kids who had often been the best and brightest in every classroom they ever entered, Ben was remarkably average and non-notable. After the first exam in the course, Ben came to me with a B-minus asking when office hours were and if we could go over the questions he got wrong. Ben continued showing up to office hours every week to go over homework and labs because he was aware of his shortcomings and sincerely wished to improve. In a class of 90 students who couldn’t care less about learning because a B+ or better average always came easy to them and that’s really all they cared about, Ben was the only student who sincerely wanted to learn the material for its own sake. I always covered names on exams before grading in order to remove bias and uncovered names when entering grades into the system. It was a pleasant surprise when grading the final to see that Ben had gone from the bottom half of the class on the first exam to the top three grades on the final.
An inspiring tale of perseverance.
This student came to me when I was working as a math tutor. She was failing algebra and desperately needed help. It soon became clear that she was not just ignorant of basic math principles, but had some kind of cognitive issue with processing mathematical concepts. Over time I figured out that she had trouble with abstract visualization. She couldn’t envision shapes or “see” how various processes fit together. She couldn’t even look at two angles and see that one was larger than the other. It was the math version of a reading disability, and merely explaining material to her wasn’t going to get her past it.
I spent over a month just trying to get the basics across to her. Concepts like “when you multiply a negative times a negative you get a positive” just would not stick…and without those basics, how much algebra can you do? Honestly, there were moments I really despaired and wondered whether it would even be possible to get her to the point where she could pass the course. And I know she was bereft of an hope. To her it was utterly confusing and totally overwhelming, and I know that deep inside she had no hope it would ever be otherwise.
But she worked. Even when she didn’t believe it would do any good, she worked, harder than I have ever seen anyone work in my life. No matter how depressed she was on a given day, or how confusing the work was, she always gave it her best. There were days the math went so badly and she felt so overwhelmed, I sensed that inside she wanted to cry. Some day she was so exhausted from school she could barely add two numbers. But she never gave up.
I have never seen anyone so determined, in my life. And when she passed algebra (got a B, actually), it was because of that quality in her. I can’t think of any other student I’ve had who would fight what seemed like a losing battle for so long, without ever flagging.
This year she took geometry. I was dreading it even more than she was, because by then I understood more about how her brain processed math, and the visualization skills required by geometry just weren’t there. Geometry spoke to the very heart of her cognitive weakness. And….she just passed her SOL test, and it looks like she’ll probably pass the course. I can’t even describe to you what a monumental thing that is. And it was possible only because of her amazing attitude. She just never gives up, no matter how bad it gets.
A girl like that can do anything she puts her mind to, in life.
President of his class.
During my first year of teaching, I had a young man in the lowest possible socioeconomic situation. He was president of his class but had absolutely no family life. I asked if his mother was attending his elementary school graduation and he told me he didn’t know.
I went to his home once and found his mother inebriated on the sofa, stark naked. I made her coffee and got her to at least stay awake. She confided in me she had nothing decent to wear. I produced $100 of my own money, she thanked me, and said she would try to make it to graduation. Of course, she didn’t show up.
That summer, this particular student, no longer a part of our school, approached and said he wanted to enter a YMCA day camp but couldn’t get in without his parent’s permission and the applicable fee. I took him to the day camp, paid the fee, and said I was his parent.
This student stayed out of trouble in high school and with his high grades was admitted to college. During the last few years before my retirement, I received a postcard from my Board of Education. My young friend standing there with a stethoscope around his neck was now a pediatrician in Minnesota. Beside him were his two daughters and his wife.
What was the difference between my young friend and the gang bangers in the neighborhood in which he grew up? Well, I guess it can be summed up in a wood burnt sign hanging in my home – *YA GOTTA WANNA. *You have to want to improve your life for real change to happen.
About 15 years ago, I taught computers at an inner city school in Florida. I also tried to catch them up on math, as many were behind. I taught every child in the school, on a rotation.
One thing I liked to do was math games. The kids would spend the period competing. I had one girl, a third grader, that was simply amazing. What other kids would take five to 10 minutes to do, she could easily do in under a minute, all in her head.
I quickly got the idea to challenge the fifth graders. I regularly ‘borrowed’ the third grader from her class and had her compete with the fifth graders — not in third grade math, but in fifth grade math, which she hadn’t been taught.
She whooped them. Every. Single. Time.
After a few months, almost every fifth grader had made it to grade level or beyond. They didn’t like losing to her.
I’ve always wondered what happened to her. I hope she is grad school or beyond. I only taught at that school for a year.
I had many unforgettable students over the years, but one really stands out.
When I was teaching ninth and tenth grade English, I periodically had students write papers on a subject of their choice and read it aloud to the class. One day, one of my best students, (popular, intelligent, overachiever, etc.) read her paper. It started with a declaration of her acting abilities (by which she meant that she was an expert at acting happy) and quickly segued into a description of her cutting herself. I can’t even imagine the courage it took to read that to the entire class. It was heartbreaking to have to tell her parents about their daughter who was terrified to tell them about the immense pressure she felt to be perfect. Her parents immediately went into action and got her counseling and helped her see that she was more important than grades, honors, or awards. The girl tried to tell another teacher, but nowhere near as clearly as she told me. I’m not sure why she chose me, but she was desperate for an adult to know. I am so grateful that I was there when she needed me.
“They all need to be shown that they are safe and valued.”
When I first started working with kindergarteners as a teenage assistant, I had Ellie.*
(*name changed to protect the identity of the child)
Ellie was very shy and withdrawn for a five-year-old, but she followed directions well so I didn’t have much reason to get to know her at first.
It probably took me three months to get her comfortable enough to have a conversation with me. I didn’t get the sense that she felt safe expressing herself around adults— my impression was that her parents were very strict and too busy to interact much. She acted like a little adult, really. No baby talk, colored perfectly within the lines, cleaned up the other kids’ messes instead of playing with them. She didn’t smile or chatter on about whatever was going through her head. If there was no work to do, she sat quietly.
Ellie became my constant shadow the moment I started paying attention to her. I’d try to include her in other children’s games, but she’d leave the moment I stepped back to let someone else lead the game. When I talked to her preschool teachers, they said that Ellie had done the same thing then and just to let her be. At least she wasn’t throwing tantrums or crying for mom like the other kids did. She rarely cried even if she got hurt.
I often complimented Ellie in front of her parents when they picked her up, as I did for every child, but they didn’t acknowledge her achievements. They just gathered her things and left, Ellie trailing obediently behind. I’m not saying they were bad parents, just distant and not used to being affectionate.
So I was shocked when Ellie one day whispered, “I love you, Miss McKayla.” And then immediately ducked her head.
I froze for a second. I was repeatedly told that I was supposed to keep a professional distance from the kids. I was their daycare person, not a family member, or even a real teacher. This wasn’t a slip, like calling me “mom”, but an intentional thing. It meant a lot for her to say that since it wasn’t something her family said. Was I crossing a line if I told her that I loved her? But how could I not affirm that she was expressing love? Of course, I loved her. I loved all the kids dearly.
So I replied, “I love you, too, Ellie.”
And that became our ritual every time I saw her. She’d quietly say I love you and I’d say it back.
Somehow, that made her more confident. She started playing with the other children. I no longer had a shadow, but that was fine because Ellie was trying new things and absolutely loving it.
She graduated kindergarten and moved up to a first grade class in another building. As far as I could see, she thrived there. Her new teachers always spoke highly of her.
I was only a teenager, so I didn’t have an understanding of child development that might’ve helped me make sense of the change. Now, I’d guess that I served as a secure attachment base for Ellie because her other attachment figures were ambivalent or less responsive. Or she just needed someone to let her know it was okay to play like a kid.
Either way, I got to see a child learn to feel safe, and it reminded me that it is important to teach that alongside all the hard-skills and information we teach in schools.
Nowadays, I work with more teenagers than kindergarteners. Whenever I have to help a student or client to trust and respect me, I think of them as a little like Ellie. They all come in with different experiences of authority figures, and I might have to adjust my behavior towards them before they are ready to adjust their own behavior.
The vast majority of people who need love won’t ask for it, so I try to look for what they need regardless. Not all people need to be told “I love you,” but they all need to be shown that they are safe and valued.
A devoted grandmother.
My wife is the teacher. She teaches in a poor school district in the U.S. For those who do not know, school districts in the U.S. are mostly funded by local property taxes. If the district is poor, the funding for the schools are usually just as poor.
In the time before cell phones, we installed a second line into the house. Part of the reason was to provide a “clean” phone for parents to call if they had any questions.
Well, one student was being raised by his grandmother and she barely had an education herself, but, by golly, her grandson was going to get one. Since she did not have an education, there was no way for her to help her grandson with homework. So, she was told to call our second line between 5:30 and 7:00 p.m. anytime she needed help assisting her grandson.
She called almost every night. It took almost an hour each time to coach her through what needed to be done with homework.
Fast forward 10 years later, my wife spots her former student working at a local department store. He graduated high school, has this new job, and grandma is doing well.
SUCCESS! All that time and effort paid off. The reason why she went into teaching.
Two weeks later, we learned he was shot for not joining the local gang.
My wife said that almost every teacher this child ever had was at his wake. He was unforgettable to EVERY teacher!
Encouraging someone to become a dad.
A couple years back I had a young girl in my 7th grade history class. Very quiet, well-behaved, and shy. A week or two into the school year, I did my annual reshuffling of the seating arrangement now that I knew who absolutely could not sit near each other anymore, and inevitably the good kids, like this young lady, end up as buffers and have to put up with the antics of their less mature classmates. I felt bad that this quiet kid had to sit by the loudmouth, so I made an effort to speak to her and apologize for her classmate. Her response was an awkward giggle, too shy to really respond to me.
Over the coming weeks, I tried to get her to come out of her shell in class and the giggle response continued until she earned the nickname Giggles. Giggles did eventually give in and start talking to me (something she didn’t do in any of her other classes). By the holidays, I was the favorite teacher, and I knew it not because Giggles told me, but because her mother thanked me for being so kind to her daughter. She shared her quirky side and worked hard for me in class (mine was the only one she had straight A’s in all year, and not because I treated her any differently).
I became like a mentor to Giggles, especially helping her get along with the witch of a science teacher she had, processing family issues, and negotiating middle school drama. At some point in the year, the Giggles name stuck, and even her classmates knew her by that name too. The end of the year came, and on the last day she asked me if she could give me a hug. My rule (as a male teacher) is I will never initiate one, but won’t turn one down either.
I didn’t teach Giggles in 8th grade, but still got visits in the hallway almost daily. One particularly bad day, I heard a high pitched “Mr. H!” from down the hall and saw Giggles heading my way. At the exact moment of my heightened frustration, there was one student in the school who reminded me that somebody cared about me, and the words came out of my mouth – “I could just adopt you, Giggles.”
Now, Giggles has her own family, so that was out of the question. But, the idea was planted. I went from curiousity, to denial, to interest, to taking action. Now, almost two years later, I am weeks away from starting my family (FINALLY). I’m going to be bringing home a sibling pair of preteens from foster care, drastically changing my life and theirs. Unfortunately, Giggles went to high school before I finally decided this was going to be my life choice and I never got to tell her about her role in the decision, but I will absolutely tell my children about the student who led me to become a dad.
Not just one, two sisters.
They were a year apart, not outstanding students, but kind. Nice kids to have in class, doing their work. The ones that you don’t notice very quickly but come to appreciate over time.
What made them very special was the conversation I had with the eldest. She was in her last year of high school and I was her mentor.
She had applied for a school day off and we were discussing her reasons. She told me that their mother’s sister had been over from New Zealand from which she had emigrated. They wanted to accompany her mother and aunt to the airport to see here off.
This was special to them because both their mother and aunt suffered from a rare congenital disease that affected the females in the family and gave them an expected lifespan of between 40 and 45 years. This farewell probably meant the last time their mother and aunt would see each other, it would be a final farewell.
By this time, my eyes were becoming a bit watery because not only would that be a heartbreaking moment for all involved but, as a biology teacher, I also understood that my student and her sister had a 50/50 chance of having the same disease and same life expectancy. And as young women developing into adulthood they were facing the awful dilemma of passing the disease on to their daughters.
This wasn’t the clincher.
She proudly told me that she and her sister were taking jobs outside school and saving the money to pay for their mothers plane ticket so she would be able to visit her sister in New Zealand next year. But her mother was not to know until they had saved all the money. She was smiling happily when she told me this, obviously pleased with the surprise they had planned for her mother.
Tears were dripping on my desk.
“Each and every child is a gift and each one is unforgettable.”
Oh my goodness. There are so many, it’s hard to pick just a few.
Freddie Highmore, the actor who plays Norman in ‘Bates Motel’. He was simply the most delightful boy one could wish to meet (wonderful family, too) who was not only truly talented, but bright, charming, and charismatic.
Many children of extraordinarily wealthy families living on trust funds who are humble, kind, hard-working, and generous.
Equally, many children who have come from the most straightened or abusive circumstances who are resilient, determined, bright and successful.
Children who have lived in numerous countries and attended school all over the world, who speak upward of three languages and who manage to understand humour in all of them!
Children who come forward to report terrible abuse — not for themselves, but to protect their younger brothers or sisters. Sadly, also children who have been abused, who then perpetrate that abuse upon younger siblings or other children.
Heroic children who have stood up to bullies on their own or others’ behalf and indeed, the bullies themselves- many of whom had experienced terrible things that had soured and scarred them.
Children with learning difficulties, special needs or physical challenges. A hearing-impaired child who pronounced me to be the best singer she had ever heard!!
Children who say ‘I love you’ every day. A child in my North London School who said I was the female equivalent of Dumbledore. A child who congratulated me on my pregnancy (in front of the whole school) I was just fat, not pregnant. The child who held my hand when I returned to Korea after my father’s funeral and told me that he would love me even ‘bigger’ now that I had lost my daddy.
I could go on forever. Each and every child is a gift and each one is unforgettable. Truly.