By: Elliott Levine on August 22, 2017
A few years ago, I stumbled across a wonderful column where the author reflected on all of the teachers who had a profound impact on his life from kindergarten all of the way through graduate school. It reminded me of the impact Professor Randy Pausch's "Last Lecture," where faced with months to live, Pausch delivered a memorable lesson for so many Carnegie Mellon students around living your childhood dreams. To this day, I still reflect often on those messages, particularly as a new school year approaches.
With such emphasis on personalized learning as the crux of our instruction, we often overlook the impact of character education, and the ability each of us, as educators, can have on students on a one-on-one basis. I often like to share some of the most powerful life lessons instilled in me by my math teacher. I must admit I rarely use the skills from certain classes, but the life lessons I find applicable most every day.
Coming from a relatively small public school system in New York, I had the same math teacher, Mr. Connolly, from 8th grade through my senior year. Not only would he prepare me for college-level calculus (I got an "A" in Calc AB without hardly ever attending class because he made it so easy to understand—sorry to admit that all these years later—but my Hofstra University math professor saw me on final exam day and didn't even recognize me as one of his students).
Each year, for about a month Mr. Connolly would end class 3-5 minutes early and focus on little moral lessons on ditty entitled "15 Little Things to Think About."
"You have the power to choose" and "set your goals high" were the most obvious. Others needed much more explanation. None of them had to do with math, but each would become part of the legacy given to every Carle Place High School graduate as Mr. Connolly became math department chair and ultimately the high school principal.
It would take 25 years for me to return to Carle Place in June 2012 to shoot a commercial for Hewlett Packard (HP). It had been 23 years since I last saw Mr. Connolly at a friend's funeral, and our new interaction was a bit surreal surrounded by a film crew and production staff. I'm sure for Mr. Connolly it was somewhat surreal as well. Graduation that month would be his last, and his retirement party was held the evening before the shoot. As principal, he would regularly visit the local senior citizen club meetings, and would get regular updates about me from my father.
Seeing him a few years ago, I couldn't help but reflect on Numbers 9 and 15 on his list:
- #9—Remember the story of the horse: I will never get this story just right—senility and 25+ years get in the way. I've tried to find this story online, but the only story that comes up is a story of a horse biting a kid. But that is not the story. Mr. Connolly would explain the tale of a man of great wealth and means who sought to possess the one thing no other man of Earth possessed. His advisors suggested he seek the wise man who lived at the top of the mountain to gain this unique piece of knowledge. He loaded his horse and began the long journey up the mountain through harsh conditions. Upon finally reaching the wise man at the top of the mountain, the wealthy man told the wise man of his long journey and how he seeks to have wisdom no other man possesses. The wise men instructed the wealthy man to "remember the story of the horse" for it was the horse that helped him on the journey—carried him, carried his supplies, survived the harsh conditions—and without the horse would have never made the trip possible. In life, we must remember and appreciate those who have helped us on our journey in life.
- #15—Always say "thank you"—No story here. Just an important message we all sometimes take for granted. Accept compliments. Recognize people for their efforts. Demonstrate empathy for those who inconvenience themselves for your benefit. It's a small character trait that can easily be overlooked from a restuarant to a board room.
When I speak with school officials and political leaders around the country, I feel immense pride for Carle Place and the educators that gave me my foundation. Mr. Connolly, as well as several that have passed on...Mr. Timpano, my music teacher for nine years; Mr.Wescott, my choral teacher in high school; and Miss Fagan, my ELA teacher for three years, whose funeral I attended a few years ago. Ask any Carle Place alumni and they too will mention these names and the impact they've had on them and so many others.
While we remain a country affixed upon test scores and learning standards, let's also recommit to making the new school year more abou the students, and the wonderful members of the society we want them to become. The impact each educator can have on a select few students is immeasurable, but will likely remain as the one key facet students will relect upon later in life. Those lessons we teach...those casual conversations...those impromptu comments...to us may seem forgettable, but to a child, they may become part of the foundation of their personal character.