Picture this: You sit down to dinner and look around. Gasp! You’re alone at a table with a half dozen of your past and present school teachers. Sitting next to you is Mr. Randal, your fourth period science teacher, and he’s staring right at you. He wants to chat.
Cringing already? Hey, I am, and they aren’t even my teachers.
There’s just something about teachers that makes most of us nervous (even those of us who no longer have to face their pop quizzes and long-essay finals). In fact, they make us so uneasy that the majority of us go through our junior and senior high years without ever getting to know what our teachers are really like, and most of us never even get to say thank you for all they do.
Two groups of LDS youth in the Boston area are doing something to fix that problem. It’s June 1990, and these New England LDS students are inviting their school teachers to “Appreciation Nights” at their local ward houses. The youth are spending an evening eating with, getting to know, and then saluting their teachers. They hope the time together will straighten out some long-standing misconceptions.
The youth of Nashua, New Hampshire, invite me to watch them set up for the following evening’s teacher appreciation dinner, which sounds about as exciting as watching 18 holes of TV golf. But I put some thought into it: a group of kids who would give up a night of summer fun to set up tables and cook for their teachers can’t be all bad.
Dave Eberhard, 17, a tall guy wearing a little black hat that seems too small for his head, says he’s the master of ceremonies for the big night. He looks like he might be a wise guy, but talk to him for a minute and you’ll find he’s articulate and bright—full of positive energy.
He says this is Nashua’s second year in hosting an appreciation night. “Last year’s dinner changed my relationship with my teachers,” he says. “They had always seen me as a class clown, but after they saw I appreciated them they began to notice how hard I really was trying. They looked at me from a different perspective.”
Dave adds that he learned more about his teachers as well. “I found out more about what really goes on after they get out of school. It’s a one-on-one relationship, and it’s not really school related or church related. It’s just you and the teachers out on the night.”
And according to Dave, the teachers loved the attention. “Some actually cried,” he says.
Elizabeth Davis, 16, sits on the front porch of her Pepperell, Massachusetts, home, her blue-rimmed glasses and baggy sweatshirt set against an old New England backdrop—1990 meets 1790. Elizabeth is talking about teachers. She has definite opinions. She loves her teachers, enough to help organize her ward’s own teacher appreciation night.
“Teachers don’t get a lot of respect,” she says. “That really annoys me. Most of my friends don’t think of teachers as people who are there to help them learn so they can get a good job, do something with their lives. The kids can be really mean.”
But Elizabeth says most of her teachers will go out of their way to help a student in need. She says that one of her teachers goes to a student’s house if that student is sick, to teach the day’s lesson (another scary thought, but kind of nice).
“All I hope is that after this night our teachers say, ‘Wow, our students really think of us.’”
It’s Tuesday night in Nashua. Sixty teachers and their spouses begin arriving at the appreciation night. They’re talking with their students, and the youth are relaxing.
I stop 14-year-old Cyndie Munk and ask her how it’s going. Three or four of her teachers are already here. “The teachers are just so impressed that we want to honor them,” she says, grinning. She sees her vice principal walk in and waves in his direction. “He never gets to do anything,” she tells me. “I gave him his invitation and told him what it was for and he absolutely beamed. Every time I saw him around school he just started smiling, asking if he was still supposed to come.”
The meal is served and Dave, the MC, sits with one of his teachers—Mrs. Rogers. Dave looks uncomfortable, but he gets over it. They chat. It’s fun to watch.
After the meal the bishop gives a “rah-rah” education speech and then the youth hand out certificates of appreciation to their teachers. My hometown newspaper would have written, “And a good time was had by all.”
The teachers are filing out and Cyndie sums up the Nashua evening for me. “My teachers said they’ve never had anyone do anything like this for them,” she says. “But I think they work hard. They give up a lot of their own time for us. I think they deserved this.”
“Two years ago I wouldn’t have done this, invited my teachers,” Jason Hunter, 16, tells me at the Pepperell dinner on Friday. Two of his teachers are here. “I’ve learned some things, though. If I am responsible, if I get my homework done, my teachers treat me differently. I’m sure that if I were a teacher and had a student who wasn’t trying, I’d get mad. The past two years I’ve made an effort in class, and now I think my teachers like me. I make the extra effort to think of them, to say good-bye when class is over, or tell them when I’m interested in something.”
Jason’s friend, Mike Bruneau, joins him. Mike’s 15 and feels lucky to be one of eight LDS students in a high school of 1,200—many of the youth in this area are the only member in their school. Mike says he tries to set an example, do the right things at school, and show respect for his teachers.
“I invited my French teacher, who gave me a lot of help earlier this year,” Mike says. “She just kept saying, ‘Thank you, thank you,’ when I gave her the invitation. I think it really touched her to see that someone cared about the good job she was doing.”
The Pepperell youth take a different approach than at Nashua. The students choose to entertain their teachers with a play and music before they hand out certificates. The play, a comedy about a class who is given a robot teacher to substitute for a human teacher, is a big hit. “Super Teacher,” written by Rebecah Davis, 15, illustrates that for the students, there is no substitute for the individual technique, enthusiasm, and humor of their teachers.
Rebecah says that most of the kids in her ward were skeptical of the appreciation night idea, but the teachers were so excited when they received their invitations that the youth lost their anxiety. “We couldn’t believe how excited our teachers were,” she adds. “Nobody had ever done anything like this for them before.”
“This is what it’s all about,” one teacher says to me, leaning close like he’s sharing a secret. “Knowing that you made enough of a difference for someone to say thank you.”
He returns to a group of other teachers who are standing around, talking with their students. They are laughing about something I can’t hear, but I don’t move closer. There’s something happening there, something kind of nice.
Hints from the New England youth on hosting successful teacher appreciation nights:
Hold the event at a time of year when both teachers and students are not very busy. (Christmas or the end of the school year can be bad times.)
Get the support of your leaders and bishopric before organizing anything. They should have some good ideas, or at least be able to help with the planning.
Invite all your teachers, not just your favorites. If word gets around (and it probably will) that you didn’t invite certain teachers, their feelings could be hurt.
Eating with your teachers, instead of serving them, is a nice way to get to know each other.
Make your program short and focused on the goal of honoring your teachers. (Make them laugh or cry, but stick to the theme.)
Give your teachers a certificate or some other memento of the evening.