The biggest lesson

Retiring educator reflects on the power of teachers to change lives

The author, a lifelong Chicoan, taught English and coached soccer at Orland High School.

How do you change a student’s life? Simple: Just one sentence. The sentence can be negative or positive, good or bad, uplifting or hurtful.

We’ve all heard stories of a teacher who told a student, “You’re stupid. You’ll never get anywhere in life.” These statements have been made by past teachers right here at Orland High School. Those students, now adults, have told me their stories. But there are other stories, the positive ones.

You learn many things teaching for 37 years. You learn that one simple, positive comment can change a student’s life forever. You learn that, by doing the right thing for your students, you can change a life. You learn that the impact you can have on students’ lives is immeasurable and beyond compare. You learn that you have the power to save a student’s life simply by caring and being kind.

Every one of us has had a teacher who has influenced us one way or another during the course of our education. We hear people speak, usually, of the great fourth-grade, junior high or high school teachers who had such a positive impact on their lives. As a teacher, perhaps that is what motivated you to become an educator.

On the other hand, you may have had teachers who were so pathetically dull and boring they made paint-drying contests seem exciting. I know I did, and those are the ones who blur in my recollections of public education and the more than 50 teachers I had during grades K-12 and then in college (and what could possibly be worse than a pedantic, boring college instructor?).

I retire on June 3, after teaching in five decades. It amazes me. What is more amazing are the conversations I’ve had with past students and the relationships I still have with many of them. I’ve made mistakes, hurt some students’ feelings along the way, but was lucky to learn from them. The biggest lesson I learned was this: Do what is best for your students. The rest is easy.