By Stacy Baier, CEO
When I think back to graduate school, a fond memory stands out that goes far beyond acing an important exam, writing a thesis or ultimately earning my doctorate. It has its roots on the very first day in class when my fellow students and I were asked to jot down a memory of our most impactful teacher.
I didn’t hesitate for a moment. The name I wrote was Mr. Costanza, my 10th-grade geometry class teacher.
It had nothing to do with the concepts of perimeter, area, and volume we studied, and that frankly came fairly easy to me as a student who excelled at math. What made Mr. Costanza such an awesome – and ultimately memorable – teacher was how he engaged students so well. Even though I had a good grasp of the subject, he made it clear from the start that he had high expectations of me. He zeroed in on my learning style, constantly pushing me to document my process and thinking.
If I neglected to do that, he’d knock off points, urging me to think critically so I would learn to clearly explain my answers to others. The fact is, I don’t think I ever got an A in geometry that year, and it wasn’t from a lack of knowing the material. The reason was that Mr. Costanza wanted me to learn to demonstrate my knowledge rather than simply arriving at the answer.
You see, teaching for Mr. Costanza wasn’t just about getting it right, but understanding why an answer was correct and how to convey that. So, you may wonder why I’m sharing this memory with you now?
The answer is that Mr. Costanza had a lasting impact on me. And it seems fitting amid Teacher Appreciation Week to reflect on the difference Mr. Costanza made in my life. He didn’t settle for me just turning in good work; he made me strive to get better because he saw something in my ability.
That is the kind of teacher, we at the Pinellas Education Foundation, want to be in front of classrooms each day, shaping our students’ futures, year in and year out. When we look at teachers, their influence extends beyond teaching the subject matter of history, English, math, science or whatever the subject.
Teaching is about imbuing in young minds the skills and competencies – and the confidence – to produce well-rounded adults. That, in turn, leads to enhanced employment opportunities, to becoming productive employees, and most importantly contributing citizens. My experience, in retrospect, could be the experience of the 100,000-plus students who go through Pinellas County Schools. And that is why it is so vital to ensure we have the very best teachers at the front of every class.
I can say without reservation that the quality of the teacher in the classroom is the No. 1 determinant of student academic achievement. And as a foundation committed to impacting student achievement, we need to be heavily invested in ensuring that the best and most talented teachers are working daily with our students.
We are dedicated to supporting teachers to continue on their professional journey, developing their skills and education to become even better at their craft. We want to assist them as they strive for excellence and improvement and, in so doing, continue to thrive as a major influence on students.
The quality of our Pinellas County Schools teachers was never more evident to me than during the onset and enduring challenges of the COVID-19 crisis. In the course of merely a week, they were forced to go from the traditional style of teaching to a totally different style – 100% online. And then when teachers returned in the fall, many continued with a hybrid of in-person and online students, and they managed to teach simultaneously to both groups.
I remember visiting the fifth-grade classroom at Eisenhower Elementary School of a 2021 Teacher of the Year, Sarah Painter. Watching her engage students online while doing so at the same time in front of the classroom was truly remarkable. I thought of how challenging that had to be, always managing to keep the learning process vibrant and productive with two different modalities of instruction taking place.
And this week, I thought about Mr. Costanza. Do I remember much about perimeter, volume and area? Not by a long shot. But am I a better critical thinker, able to communicate my reasoning more clearly in decision-making? You bet.
I invite all of you, reading this at the end of Teacher Appreciation Week, to reflect on a teacher you had in your educational journey who made a positive impact in your life. And as you do that, think of ways to show your appreciation for teachers and their profession not just this week but all year-long.
Editor’s Note: Stacy Baier is the CEO of the Pinellas Education Foundation.