A salute to Keystone’s outstanding teachers

Nov 05 2020

A salute to Keystone’s outstanding teachers

“One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world.”
Malala Youfasazi

Teaching in the best of times is hard work. And these are certainly not the best of times. In conversations with heads of school around the country, we discuss the heroic efforts of teachers as they instruct, nurture, and guide their students through this pandemic. Some schools now have all students on campus, some have students in person and in distance learning, and some have yet to allow students to return physically to school. In all of these situations, teachers are working harder than ever to support their students academically and in social-emotional learning as they navigate these unprecedented times.

For those not in the classroom, it can be difficult at times to understand the profession of teaching. More than a job, teaching is a calling like the ministry, the medical profession, and other service-related roles in society. Like those other professions, the work truly never ends, because one can always find a new way to do something or discover a different method for helping others.

I have the good fortune to see this heartfelt commitment on a daily basis with the extraordinary teaching at Keystone. This year, our teachers are taking it to a new level as we educate children at school and at home. Even though I have said it before, I think it bears repeating: concurrent and distant teaching may be the most difficult forms of teaching.

Again and again, I have heard teachers express how much time they spend planning their lessons to ensure that children in person and children at home receive equal attention; at the end of the day, though, even with all of their hard work and their best intentions, a teacher might express frustration that they may not have reached everyone that day. Teachers aim to serve every child in every class, but this can be hard when they have to swivel between the student right in front of them and the child on the screen.

I thought about the excellent work of our teachers recently while re-reading a 2015 essay by journalist/historian John Dickerson called “To the Teacher Who Changed My Life: Thank you.” In this piece, Dickerson discusses his 10th grade English teacher Neal Tonken and the role Tonken played in his life. Dickerson admits that he was not the most motivated student in sophomore year. “I wandered lonely as a cloud in 10th grade. I wrote computer programs and played computer games and sports. My report cards from that period show that I glided along with only the mildest interruptions from applied effort.”

Yet, Tonkin was able to kindle an interest, to light a fire for the apathetic pupil. “Mr. Tonken had made literature an adventure, throwing open trapdoors in the text in class to help us understand what was really going on. Actually, mostly he pressed us to do that for ourselves. This was not a class in which information was ladled over you. He expected you to go get it.”

Tonken challenged and supported Dickerson and others to realize their potential as readers, writers, and as people. He helped them become smarter and better; consequently, the impact on students transcended far beyond the confines of his classroom.

At Keystone, we regularly hear inspiring stories like these about our teachers. From pre-Kindergarten to senior year, students express in their own way how a teacher has shown them something they never expected to see in the world or in themselves. Current and former Cobras reflect on how they have grown and prospered because their teachers helped them move to an entirely new level intellectually and personally.

Keystone staff demonstrate a similar devotion to our young people, and as head of school, I have the opportunity to witness and hear about it. This past summer, our younger son, whose summer job at college fell through, volunteered with the Keystone maintenance crew. Recently, he texted me how much he appreciated the experience, and when I asked him why, he explained “Being around people who like what they are doing and want to do their job well. I also realized that the work I was doing for Keystone was bigger than myself. Yes, it was my job to do all those tasks, but I was doing all the work for the school, for the kids, parents, families and faculty/staff of the school.” He learned this valuable life-lesson from our committed and caring staff.

Last Friday, Lower School students led by music teacher Mr. Gonzales sang a song of goodbye to Mr. Nutt who was leaving Keystone to pursue a new and exciting professional opportunity. There was nary a dry eye, and although Mr. Nutt claimed it was the wind and his allergies that made him tear up, we all knew better.

I recently had the opportunity to sit in on a surprise Zoom visit from alumni to a current Keystone teacher. The collegiality among the former Cobras and their teacher felt both endearing and affirming. The conversation ranged from reminiscences about their high school class to the work they are doing today. Everyone laughed but also engaged in conversation around topics they studied together and the alumni are now pursuing in college and in their careers. The teacher’s influence on the students appeared to be both profound and long-lasting. As the head of school, I was deeply moved.

At the conclusion of Dickerson’s essay, he reminds us to say “thank you” to those teachers who have changed our lives irrevocably. As we enter the season of thanks, we want to be sure to express our gratitude to Keystone’s faculty and staff who are working harder than ever in the face of a pandemic, an economic recession, and a tumultuous election, any one of which could pose an unsurmountable distraction to teaching. These extraordinary people, individually and collectively, are making a permanent and positive difference in the lives of their students. As the song in the musical “Wicked” reminds us,

“Because I knew you
I have been changed
For good.”

To the Keystone faculty and staff: Thank you for the life-altering work you do.

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