16 December 2021

No. 13

To my teachers

Do you know how some kids want to be teachers when they grow up?

Do you know why?

I do. When I was in fifth grade, I was shy, short, and quiet. I had skipped two grades, and so I was two years younger than the other students. My parents had moved five times (Vermont, Pennsylvania, Indiana, New Mexico) before we had come back to Texas, and I didn't have a lot of friends. Or, for that matter, experience making them.

But in the mornings, before school, every day, I would get dropped off at around 6am by my parents. I would wait with the crossing guard until my teacher came to school, and then go sit with her in the classroom and write in my journal, and do my work, until school started. I still remember her name was Mrs. Hill.

In that class, I went from being a very-quiet, very-unsure, very-shy child, to being a mostly-quiet, mostly-unsure, mostly-shy kid. And, as anyone who's been in that situation can tell you, that's actually a lot of improvement. I felt proud when I could shape a spoon out of aluminum foil for our hands-on science demonstration, I felt good about writing, in a way I thought was interesting. And at Camp Tyler, an outdoor school that each 5th grade class in our public school distict visited for a week, I had fun.

That's the change a teacher can cause. You might say, "that's what they're told to do". But I remember Mrs. Hill would spend her own money to buy supplies and other things for the classroom. She didn't need to wake up so early for school to let me in. Neither did the crossing guard.

I haven't had a long career, but I've been exceedingly lucky to meet people like Mrs. Hill. People that made me want to be like them, when I grew up.

Teachers are Mentors

My first internship was exceptional. It shaped my career in the same way that Mrs. Hill's fifth grade class shaped my educational path.

That summer I had a great time, learned a lot, and grew as a person. I left that internship better-equipped to solve problems.

Not just because the tech was robust, or the team was skilled, or because I had real responsibilities. But also because of who I sat next to.

My manager, Zack, was more of a mentor than anything else. When we had discussions, we had them as peers. When we had 1-1s, we would talk about life, and I knew I could ask difficult questions. The type you would ask a friend, when you needed advice.

To some people, I'm describing their current manager-direct relationship. To others, I'm describing something unfathomably impossible. For me, it was my first internship, and I kind of figured I had found something good.

Zack mentored as a peer, and by that, I mean imagine you had time-traveled to see yourself 10 years in the future. Would you expect them to look down on you? Hand you quick answers, instead of expanding your understanding? Or would you imagine them to do everything they could in their power to increase your knowledge and independence, assuming they would be better for it?

Paying it forward

Nowadays, when I need to be a mentor, I try to imagine how Zack would approach it. Last winter, I helped my sister as she built and programmed a RC car with an arduino, and she actually had a good time. This summer, I mentored two of our interns at Tandem, and I actually did well.

I say actually, because I historically haven't been a great mentor. Back when I was in college, I set expectations too high, and I looked down on people I mentored if I didn't feel they met them. I probably had an overall discouraging effect on my sister, or friends I tried to teach programming to, instead of accelerating their learning.

If I hadn't been other side of the table, and learned how to be a mentor from my mentors, I don't know how I would've ever improved.

A grateful thanks

I feel incredibly lucky to have these people in my life. People with no prior connection to me, who still care that I learn, and do well.

To Mrs. Hill, to Zack, and to all my other teachers:

Thank you for instilling a learning spirit in me.

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