Proudest moments from the classroom — and they have nothing to do with test scores
Photo by Jonny Mansfield on Unsplash

Take a second and think about your favorite teacher. Regardless of how long it's been since you stepped foot in a classroom, it's likely that you have fond memories of one teacher, or several, who made a lasting impact on your life. They went above and beyond because they cared, supported you through challenging times, and inspired you to reach for your dreams.

For Celina Lee, now a career coach, lawyer, and author, it was her eight grade English teacher, Mr. Weiss, who stood up for her when she didn't know how to stand up for herself, and helped her find her voice.

Courtesy of Celina Lee

"I was tortured by ongoing bullying when I was in middle school because I had come from South Korea and didn't speak English well," said Lee. "One morning I went to see him to tell him it was just impossible to finish all the homework, including an essay he had assigned. He listened to me with patience. Then he looked me in the eye, and with intention, he said, 'Celina, you can do this.'"

Several days later, to Lee's amazement, Mr. Weiss declared in front of the classroom, "We have a wonderful writer in our class. Celina, why don't you read your essay out loud for everyone?"

"I was stunned," said Lee.

She finished reading her essay and the class applauded. Many years later, this moment still sticks with Lee.

"After that day, school wasn't so bad anymore. His belief in me changed the way others saw me, and how I saw myself. It took just one instance of encouragement at a critical moment to make all the difference."

Teacher satisfaction undeniably comes from students mastering a curriculum, but educators also derive tremendous fulfilment in "ah ha" moments or life lessons that mold students into strong, tolerant, confident, and happy people.

Adam Cole taught choir at a Georgia middle school until 2006. His proudest accomplishment even today: helping students overcome interpersonal challenges and reach their true potential.

Photo courtesy of Adam Cole

"In addition to getting my kids ready for all their choral performances, I felt an obligation to work on their self-esteem and confidence," Cole said. "We had a tradition that in the last five minutes of every class, anyone who wanted to could come up and perform whatever moved them. This was a great experience — not only for the most outgoing students, but also the most shy."

Cole remembers one student in particular:

"I had a young man who started with me in sixth grade. He was a nice kid, friendly, and a little uncomfortable socially. It was clear he wanted to be outgoing and charismatic, but had no idea how to be," said Cole.

Over the course of three years, Cole would coach the young man on eye contact, posture, and presentation.

"By the eighth grade he was nothing like the kid I met years before. The thing that made me happiest was that, when he came up to the front of the room, he was charismatic. Any time I can see firsthand how powerful our work actually is, it makes me proud, and it makes me want to fight for us and for our students."

Although teachers may be tempted to shrug it off as "just part of the job," these moments are truly special. The attention and commitment given to each student to help them grow ties teacher and student together in a transformational way.

For veteran educator Allison Bruning, helping a student embrace her cultural identity created a lifelong bond.

Photo courtesy of Allison Bruning

Bruning was teaching second grade in Fort Stockton, Texas when she learned one of her incoming students was Mary*, a sweet girl, but very shy and struggling with Language Arts, who happened to live on the Navajo reservation.

"I could tell something was bothering her. Even though she was very nice, she had a hard time making friends," said Bruning.

Eager to help her student, Bruning met with Mary's mother and learned that Mary had struggled on the Reservation as well, wanting nothing to do with her cultural heritage. Mary was in a school where she, her sister and her parents were the only Native Americans.

"I felt it was very important for a student to master his or her first language before trying to conquer a second one," said Bruning.

To help Mary connect with her heritage, Bruning assigned her a special project where she would have to learn a new Navajo word each week, then present that word and its meaning to Bruning every Friday. Over time, Mary's appreciation for her culture and language grew. She learned more Navajo words and, in doing so, was also able to increase her English Language Arts ability as well. Mary's confidence had developed to the point where she asked her teacher if she could give a demonstration to her class about her culture, dressed in her traditional Navajo clothes.

Mary's skills advanced quickly; soon she was reading above her grade level and returned to the Navajo reservation at the end of the year where she continued to thrive. She graduated with honors from high school last year and is now in college.

"Culture is very important and is lost forever if it is not passed down to the next generation. I was proud to help a child appreciate her heritage. And I was even prouder to have been invited to her high school graduation last year," said Bruning.

Incredible and inspiring teachers are all around us. But today's teachers often do not have the resources and support to tackle issues that students face, such as mental health and wellbeing.

That's why Walgreens has launched WE Teachers to provide teachers with tools to help their students thrive. Special learning modules developed in partnership with the ME to WE Foundation and Mental Health America provide no-cost training to help teachers navigate the tough social issues into the classroom, including youth violence, diversity and inclusion, mental health and wellbeing, poverty, and bullying.

Teachers have more tangible needs as well, as it's not uncommon for educators to spend their own money to purchase classroom supplies.

Through Walgreens WE Teachers Award, part of WE Teachers, you can nominate educators who go above and beyond like Mrs. Bruning, Mr. Cole and Mr. Weiss to receive a $500 Walgreens gift card, which is the average amount teachers spend out-of-pocket on supplies annually. At least 500 nominated teachers will receive a WE Teachers Award. To learn more about the awards and how to nominate an amazing teacher, visit walgreens.com/metowe. Teachers can apply, too.

When you shop back to school at Walgreens, you're joining their commitment to support teachers and schools across America. When we support teachers, the future is brighter for all of us.

Courtesy of Farwiza Farhan
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Growing up in Indonesia, Farwiza Farhan always loved the ocean. It's why she decided to study marine biology. But the more she learned, the more she realized that it wasn't enough to work in the ocean. She needed to protect it.

"I see the ocean ecosystem collapsing due to overfishing and climate change," she says. "I felt powerless and didn't know what to do [so] I decided to pursue my master's in environmental management."

This choice led her to work in environmental protection, and it was fate that brought her back home to the Leuser Ecosystem in Sumatra, Indonesia — one of the last places on earth where species such as tigers, orangutans, elephants and Sumatran rhinoceros still live in the wild today. It's also home to over 300 species of birds, eight of which are endemic to the region.

"When I first flew over the Leuser Ecosystem, I saw an intact landscape, a contiguous block of lush, diverse vegetation stretched through hills and valleys. The Leuser is truly a majestic landscape — one of a kind."

She fell in love. "I had my first orangutan encounter in the Leuser Ecosystem," she remembers. "As the baby orangutan swung from the branches, seemingly playing and having fun, the mother was observing us. I was moved by the experience."

Courtesy of Farwiza Farhan

"Over the years," she continues, "the encounters with wildlife, with people, and with the ecosystem itself compounded. My curiosity and interest towards nature have turned into a deep desire to protect this biodiversity."

So, she began working for a government agency tasked to protect it. After the agency dismantled for political reasons in the country, Farhan decided to create the HAkA Foundation.

"The goals [of HAkA] are to protect, conserve and restore the Leuser Ecosystem while at the same time catalyzing and enabling just economic prosperity for the region," she says.

"Wild areas and wild places are rare these days," she continues. "We think gold and diamonds are rare and therefore valuable assets, but wild places and forests, like the Leuser Ecosystems, are the kind of natural assets that essentially provide us with life-sustaining services."

"The rivers that flow through the forest of the Leuser Ecosystem are not too dissimilar to the blood that flows through our veins. It might sound extreme, but tell me — can anyone live without water?"

Courtesy of Farwiza Farhan

So far, HAkA has done a lot of work to protect the region. The organization played a key role in strengthening laws that bring the palm oil companies that burn forests to justice. In fact, their involvement led to an unprecedented, first-of-its-kind court decision that fined one company close to $26 million.

In addition, HAkA helped thwart destructive infrastructure plans that would have damaged critical habitat for the Sumatran elephants and rhinos. They're working to prevent mining destruction by helping communities develop alternative livelihoods that don't damage the forests. They've also trained hundreds of police and government rangers to monitor deforestation, helping to establish the first women ranger teams in the region.

"We have supported multiple villages to create local regulation on river and land protection, effectively empowering communities to regain ownership over their environment."

She is one of Tory Burch's Empowered Women this year. The donation she receives as a nominee is being awarded to the Ecosystem Impact Foundation. The small local foundation is working to protect some of the last remaining habitats of the critically endangered leatherback turtle that lives on the west coast of Sumatra.

"The funds will help the organization keep their ranger employed so they can continue protecting the islands, endangered birds and sea turtle habitats," she says.

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen. Do you know an inspiring woman like Farwiza? Nominate her today!

Jennifer Lawrence

After being a Hollywood staple, Jennifer Lawrence vanished from the public eye following the release of "X-Men Dark Phoenix" in 2019.

Sure, the pandemic had something to do with that … in addition to the usual way our society treats Hollywood "it" girls, once it grows accustomed to the flavor. But in a recent interview with Vanity Fair, Lawrence opens up about some other reasons she chose to step away for a time.

Lawrence went from being a highly sought-after Oscar-winning actress to starring in less-than-successful films like "Passengers," "Mother!" and "Red Sparrow." The films were not only poorly received among critics, but commercially as well.

"I was not pumping out the quality that I should have," she told VF. "I just think everybody had gotten sick of me. I'd gotten sick of me. It had just gotten to a point where I couldn't do anything right. If I walked a red carpet, it was, 'Why didn't she run?'"

So then, why do it? As any workaholic would know, it's about so much more than money.

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Courtesy of Ms. Lopez
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Marcella Lopez didn't always want to be a teacher — but once she became one, she found her passion. That's why she's stayed in the profession for 23 years, spending the past 16 at her current school in Los Angeles, where she mostly teaches children of color.

"I wanted purpose, to give back, to live a life of public service, to light the spark in others to think critically and to be kind human beings," she says. "More importantly, I wanted my students to see themselves when they saw me, to believe they could do it too."

Ms. Lopez didn't encounter a teacher of color until college. "That moment was life-changing for me," she recalls. "It was the first time I felt comfortable in my own skin as a student. Always remembering how I felt in that college class many years ago has kept me grounded year after year."

It's also guided her teaching. Ms. Lopez says she always selects authors and characters that represent her students and celebrate other ethnicities so students can relate to what they read while also learning about other cultures.

"I want them to see themselves in the books they read, respect those that may not look like them and realize they may have lots in common with [other cultures] they read about," she says.

She also wants her students to have a different experience in school than she did.

When Ms. Lopez was in first grade, she "was speaking in Spanish to a new student, showing her where the restroom was when a staff member overheard our conversation and directed me to not speak in Spanish," she recalls. "In 'this school,' we only speak English," she remembers them saying. "From that day forward, I was made to feel less-than and embarrassed to speak the language of my family, my ancestors; the language I learned to speak first."

Part of her job, she says, is to find new ways to promote acceptance and inclusion in her classroom.

"The worldwide movement around social justice following the death of George Floyd amplified my duty as a teacher to learn how to discuss racial equity in a way that made sense to my little learners," she says. "It ignited me to help them see themselves in a positive light, to make our classroom family feel more inclusive, and make our classroom a safe place to have authentic conversations."

One way she did that was by raising money through DonorsChoose to purchase books and other materials for her classroom that feature diverse perspectives.

Courtesy of Ms. Lopez

The Allstate Foundation recently partnered with DonorsChoose to create a Racial Justice and Representation category to encourage teachers like Ms. Lopez to create projects that address racial equity in the classroom. To launch the category, The Allstate Foundation matched all donations to these projects for a total of $1.5 million. Together, they hope to drive awareness and funding to projects that bring diversity, inclusion, and identity-affirming learning materials into classrooms across the country. You can see current projects seeking funding here.

When Ms. Lopez wanted to incorporate inclusive coloring books into her lesson plans, The Allstate Foundation fully funded her project so she was able to purchase them.

"I'm a lifelong learner, striving to be my best version of myself and always working to inspire my little learners to do the same," she says. Each week, Ms. Lopez and the students would focus on a page in the book and discuss its message. And she plans to do the same again this school year.

"DonorsChoose has been a gamechanger for my students. Without the support of all the donors that come together on this platform, we wouldn't have a sliver of what I've been able to provide for my students, especially during the pandemic," she says.

"My passion is to continue striving to be excellent, and to continue to find ways to use literature as an anchor, depicting images that reflect my students," she says.

To help teachers like Ms. Lopez drive this important mission forward, donate on DonorsChoose.

Courtesy of Ms. Lopez

This story was originally published on The Mighty and originally appeared here on 07.21.17


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