On Millennials, and the Lasting Legacy of My Favorite Educator

“A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” – Henry Adams

 

My Millennial generation is often characterized as a group of spoiled, entitled babies, gladly accepting our participation trophies and going about our business. And who knows? Maybe there’s some truth behind the stereotypes. Maybe we were told too often as kids how great we are, and weren’t challenged enough to work harder, deal with hardship, and push through adversity. But I also believe that there is something so special and rare about people who can make you feel truly important just for being who you are, and I trust that those people and the impact they leave on us transcend generations.

Because there’s a big difference between those who told you to “be yourself” as a kid, and those who lifted you up simply by making you feel larger than life. Words of the former can ring hallow and lead to a false sense of accomplishment; actions of the latter have weight behind them, they motivate and ignite action.

This is a story of the latter.

The story of someone who made such an impact that even though we haven’t spoken in several years, I still feel as though I learn from her today. My all-time favorite educator, Ms. Henderson.

 

The Importance of Importance.

No one was going to mistake me or (most of) my high school teammates for superstars or athletic prodigies. But for a few minutes each week, representing something bigger than ourselves and competing, we could certainly feel like it, especially when Ms. Henderson was around.

I’m pretty sure she didn’t make it to a few games here and there, but it’s hard to remember when. Her absence was definitely the exception, not the rule. In between classes or after school she’d always ask about the team, ask how I felt about last night’s game or my other classes, and simply listen to my excitement, frustration, nervousness, whatever. It wasn’t about her feeding my ego or blowing sunshine. Rather, just by her being engaged, listening attentively and being genuinely interested, I felt 10-feet tall.

There’s no better feeling than one of importance. Few things are more inspiring, and more of a spark to take action than feeling as though you are playing a bigger part in this world than you otherwise might have thought. I believe that’s true for children in school and in sports, but even for those of us in the professional world. In my experience, the most effective leaders have a way of instilling this feeling in other people in a way that motivates them to take on more, learn from challenges and grow. There’s an inherent trust in that spirit. A standard is set by these people, and you’re driven to meet it and not let them down.

 

Me and Ms. Henderson, circa 2001.
Me and Ms. Henderson, circa 2001.

Break through surface level.

Ms. Henderson was undoubtedly a popular teacher within the walls of our school, but one thing I cherished about our relationship was how we could quickly get past surface level exchanges and talk about what was really important. She wanted to know what I really thought, how I really felt, what was really going on, and because she had built so much trust with me, I knew I could open up and tell her. I only wish I could have been as active of a listener and confidant to her as she was for me, because looking back, I can’t imagine my 17-year-old self asking the important questions and diving into topics that would push the depths of my adolescent bubble. But I suppose that’s somewhat to be expected from a student-teacher relationship, and I trust she’d understand.

I’m reminded of this point today on social media, when it’s so easy for me to fall victim to the “likes addiction;” to fish for likes and comments rather than picking up the phone or meeting someone in person for a conversation. I’m admittedly not great at this, but Ms. Henderson’s legacy is a reminder for me to strive for more; for deeper, more impactful relationships rather than surface level exchanges and pats on the back with those closest to me.

 

Show up.

Ms. Henderson was Ms. Consistency. As much of a staple in our soccer, basketball and baseball games as the refs and cheerleaders. Just having her in the stands and actively engaged in those experiences was both comforting and inspiring, but it also established a strong foundation of trust. That’s not to say I wouldn’t have trusted her otherwise – quite the contrary – but knowing she was there confirmed what I already knew, that she truly cared about me as a person, not just as a student between the bells. And her consistency went well beyond her attendance at our games. I always felt as though she “showed up” for us on a daily basis by always actively listening, asking the right questions, and providing advice or support when we needed it most.

What a great reminder for me to truly “show up” in my relationships today – to focus and truly be present with people; not just when things are going smoothly, but in those moments when I feel like checking out on someone. There is strength and discipline in that consistency, and it’s a big reason Ms. Henderson made such a lasting impact.

 

Respect through pride in your work.

We all remember “the cool teachers.” The ones who seemed more concerned with being your buddy, getting as many laughs from their class as they could, or mailing it in by popping in a movie every week and not challenging their class in any way. This is such an important point, and for me it’s what truly set Ms. Henderson apart. She wasn’t interested in being a “cool teacher” whose class you could skate through unchallenged. Rather, she was an educator first and foremost. It would have been so easy for her to coast on her popularity, and not push us to actually learn. Instead, she dug in and expected us to do the same. Between classes she was the warmest person in the building but when the bell rang for her Algebra classes, it was on. I respect and appreciate her as much for who she was in the classroom and what she expected from us, as I do for how caring and engaged she was outside of it. She achieved the rare feet of being both a “cool teacher” and one whose classes were challenging and fulfilling for her students.

Today I see examples of this type of spirit and pride in one’s work all over the place in professional circles, but I’m especially impressed by the amazing, if unheralded, people I see as part of my daily routine – the locker room attendant at the gym who is visibly passionate about maintaining an orderly, clean operation when it would be so easy to be complacent; the shuttle coordinator at the bus station who gives out hugs to willing passengers as we head to the office; or the office building attendant who fills our lobby with enthusiastic, genuine and creative greetings for everyone as we clock in for another workday. Each one of these individuals pours their heart into their work, and just for a moment, everyone of us is lifted up just a little bit because of it. Over time, and without fanfare or accolades, these people earn the respect of so many people, one small act at a time.

 


 

Bringing it back to me and my Millennials, sure, maybe we were spoiled, but it’s dangerous to paint millions of individuals with such broad strokes. And I suspect the traits and practices of our strongest educators were just as applicable and important for the generations before us, and will be for generations to come. Few people have more of an opportunity to impact lives in a positive way than a teacher, and maybe the best way for us to pay them back is to pay their influence forward to the next generation.

So what would it look like if we applied the traits of our strongest educators – the Ms. Hendersons of the world – in our day-to-day lives more often? How might we take their approaches outside of the classroom and into our daily interactions with one another? How might we achieve deeper, more fulfilling connections? Would it mean listening more to people who might be struggling, or more consistently “showing up” for our friends and family? Showing more empathy and respecting each other’s points of view? And how might we instill a genuine sense of importance in someone else, if only to lift them up in some small way?

I love what my friends, Becky and Jon (both Millennials), practice with their kids every day before school, and follow-up on every evening. “How will you (or did you) lift someone else up today?”

I can’t wait to steal that practice for our kids one day, and if that is the type of influence we can expect from Millennials as the parents, teachers, and leaders of our next generation, then I believe we’ll be just fine.

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