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Teachers who make the grade

Teens often worry about what lies ahead in their lives, such as jobs and college, all the while managing to keep up with their schoolwork and other daily obligations.

Having a role model or mentor during this time (in addition to parents) to support and encourage them can be extremely beneficial, and at times, essential.

For many, that important figure is a teacher.

A good teacher can have a lasting impact on a student’s life, both academically and socially.

But what are the qualities that make a good teacher?

"Definitely approachable and visibly willing to help," said 15-year-old Gabriella Berardi, a sophomore at Sacred Heart Academy in Buffalo. "Nothing is worse than when a teacher seems distant or too busy to help their students.

"Being engaging and able to grab the attention of their students is also important," she said.

Capturing the attention of students can be crucial for a teacher. According to the University of Washington’s website, research has shown that engaging students in the learning process enlarges their attention and focus, prompts them to practice higher-level critical thinking skills, and encourages meaningful learning experiences.

Providing an informal, yet appealing learning experience for students relates to another quality found in good teachers: finding the potential in each student and helping them achieve their own individual goals.

"The most important quality a teacher can possess is recognizing the student’s backgrounds and needs," said Patricia Connelly, a history teacher at St. Mary’s High School in Lancaster for 12 years. "It’s important to let my students know that I believe in every aspect of them and make sure they understand that I’m always here to help and to assist them in becoming the best they can be. It’s something that they can look upon and be able to know that I care about them," she said.

"Displaying a passion for what I’m doing can certainly help influence a student as well, because if you don’t care about what you’re doing or if it’s just a job to you, then you won’t be remembered, most likely," Connelly continued.

Being empowered by teachers inspires students to strive to achieve higher grades in their academics.

In a recent study reported by the website youcubed at Stanford University, hundreds of high school students wrote essays for their English classes. Each student received feedback from their teachers, but only half received an extra sentence on the bottom of their feedback that read, "I am giving you this feedback because I believe in you." The students given this additional response scored at higher levels a year later.

Berardi claims that having a teacher as an extra motivator can help a student to try their best and reach their full potential.

"It helps you to realize how important your grades are," said Berardi, "and that your teacher genuinely wants you to succeed."

Teacher quality can make such a difference that a student is presumably better off in a bad school with a good teacher, than in a good school with a bad teacher, according the American RadioWorks website.

The amount of encouragement students are provided and the effectiveness of the teacher’s lessons reflect back onto the student’s life, both inside and outside of the classroom.

Inside the classroom, the impact of a good teacher can have a direct effect on the student’s academic standings. The RAND Corporation website claims that a teacher is estimated to have two to three times the impact of any other school factor, such as services, facilities or leadership, when it comes to student performance on reading and math examinations.

A teacher’s love for the subject they teach can also affect the performance of students in the classroom.

"If a teacher has an attitude where they don’t care how you do in that class, why should you care how you do?" Berardi asked.

An article from the Huffington Post claims that educators must nurture student curiosity, elevate expectations for all students, and in many cases, provide students with hope where there wasn’t hope before.

"My dad was a teacher and I always admired how interested he was in the students and the subject area he taught," said Connelly. "His love and passion for history and social studies made me interested in them as well, and that really influenced me."

Certain teachers also inspire their students in other facets of their lives, all the while providing the foundation for a substantial education.

Though there are many occupations that allow people to have a positive impact on the world, few of them have as direct of an impact on creating a better society as teachers do, according to the Kangan Institute website. The site points out that people tend to remember their teachers years after finishing high school, since a good teacher can inspire students to become something they never thought they could be, or to work in a field they initially thought they weren’t cut out for.

"My biology teacher last year helped me realize how much I love science and that I really want to pursue a career in the medical field when I’m older," said Berardi.

According to a survey by the ING Foundation, 88 percent of Americans claimed they had had a teacher who had a "significant positive impact" on their life, and 98 percent said they believe a good teacher can change the course of a student’s life. The survey also found that 83 percent said they had a teacher who helped build their confidence and self-esteem, and 79 percent said they had a teacher who encouraged them to pursue their dreams.

In many instances, the inspiration and guidance an educator provides to a student can lead to the formation of a mentor bond that goes beyond academic matters.

"The best part of teaching is the impact the students have on your life. You see them develop and grow as individuals," said Thomas Fay, a former math and current religion and Latin teacher who has been teaching at St. Mary’s High School for 38 years. "One of the benefits I’ve had working at St. Mary’s is teaching kids as freshmen and having them back as seniors. It’s satisfying to see so much growth and maturity in that four-year period."

The world of entertainment has even provided exemplary educators who motivated their students (and viewers) in and out of the classroom, like John Keating from "Dead Poets Society" or George Feeney from "Boy Meets World."

"A turning point in every student’s life occurs once you find that connection with a special teacher and realize that they believe in you even when you don’t believe in yourself, whether it’s in grammar school, junior high, high school, or college," said Heather Ruhland, an English teacher of nine years and dance/theater teacher of 13 years at St. Mary’s. "Finding that one special teacher changes your life forever. They say one thing and it may ignite a spark."

According to a study on the American Psychology Association’s website, teachers who experience close relationships with students reported that their students were less likely to avoid school, appeared more self-directed, more cooperative and more engaged in learning.

"My favorite part about being a teacher is my students, hands down. I don’t even have to think about that question; I would be nothing without them," said Ruhland. "It’s difficult for me to see them hurt or struggle with things I can’t fix."

Even the simplest methods of bonding can make a difference in both the educator and student’s life.

Recently, WCNC reported that a teacher (Barry White Jr.) in Charlotte, N.C., starts the school day by doing a specialized handshake with each of his students in order to engage, connect and build trust with them.

Another example of an educator going above and beyond to make strong bonds with his students was reported by CBS News in 2013. An Indianapolis junior high teacher (Dan Stroup) sends handwritten letters to each student on their birthday – even those who graduated many years earlier.

Fay said that an indispensable factor of the role teachers play is to be a role model for students and to act genuine in front of them.

"The role that teachers play is to model what it means to be an adult; to model what it means to be a caring adult and to be concerned about individual students," he said. "Teachers have to be real; to be who they are and not put on a false personality in front of the students. To admit that we don’t always know everything, sometimes we make a mistake, and sometimes we need to apologize to students if we overreact to a situation or don’t do the right thing," Fay said.

The relationship between students and teachers has even been tested. mentions an experiment that involved children taking a cognitive test (problem solving regarding shapes, patterns and analogies). A photograph of the child’s teacher was shown to the child before solving the next problem. Though it only appeared only for a split second, the photograph had a subliminal effect on the kids who had close, affectionate teacher relationships (as opposed to distant ones), because they ended up solving many problems faster.

Often times, the things students remember most about their teachers are the acts of empathy and benevolence that truly made a difference. Advice and encouragement received from a teacher, or memories of something as simple as brightening up a student’s day by making them laugh, can stick with a person forever.

"My teaching career has been one of the most enjoyable roller coaster rides I’ve been on," reflected Fay. "One of the things I’ve seen among my students that has remained constant is the fact that students are students and if you respect them they will respect you. Teaching has its highs and lows, but the benefit is the gift that the students are to the teacher. Often we don’t think of them as gifts, but they really are God’s gifts to us; to keep us thinking young and to remind us of what it was like to be their age."

Brianna Propis is a sophomore at St. Mary’s High School.


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