Gratitude for Teachers—Stories

We should ask, what do teachers think about what they do and how they believe they are making a difference? Knowing how they have tried to be part of the “helping profession” of teaching it would direct us to be grateful in a way we did not anticipate.

Brady Link, a former superintendent of schools, told me a story about his Biology class. He would take his students to a beautiful setting formerly operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority, Land Between the Lakes that is divided into two states, Tennessee and Kentucky. It is a natural area with lakes, rivers, forest, wetlands that are gorgeous, a wonderful place to connect nature to biology and connect those areas to students.

He told the story about a former student seeing him after several years. This young person greeted him and said:  “I really liked your class, especially the time you took us for a field trip to a natural area, Land Between the Lakes.” Mr. Link was pleased to hear these kind words. He decided to probe, why did this student remember that experience. He asked: “Why did you like it?” Thinking he would receive an affirmation of his teaching methods or some basic biological concept he continued. 

The student responded: “ I don’t really know, but we had fun.”  Link responded that was not what he expected. Actually he was deflated since he wanted an appreciation that was connected to a specific concept or skill, something that affirmed what he was trying to do to connect Biology to nature. Mr. Link clearly was saddened his effort to help his student was merely “fun.” Yet he did receive praise, just not what he thought was important. But, it was gratitude nevertheless. 

How many times do we receive a compliment and find the reason for it was different that what we expected? Yet many teachers do not expect gratitude, because over their careers they observe many of their students as “light bulbs” illuminating. They see success and to them, it is enough. Teachers as a group are self-effacing and do not expect praise especially after the fact. They are pleased to be helpers and see success in the eyes of their students. They do not expect a compliment, but I wonder how much better the job of teaching would be if students were more appreciative for those things they do for students. 

We have had teachers we thought were exceptional. Do we take the time to send our appreciation? In my Introduction to Education class I would often ask a class of forty to eighty students: “how many of you had a teacher or teachers who you thought were great?” 

Consistently nearly everyone had a teacher they fondly remembered. Many times they revealed why they remembered them. Sometimes, it was like the student of Mr. Link, they didn’t know but they mattered nevertheless. 

I often followed that with another question: “How many of you shared your gratitude and thanks to that teacher?” Ten percent or less raised their hand to share they had thanked or celebrated that effort.  

I asked:  “Why do you suppose we have teachers that mattered to us and we do not celebrate their effort to help us?”  Some said they never thought of it, did not know how to do it, and some did not think it was important. We all agreed, it is valuable to share our gratitude to those whose efforts impacted our lives. 

Several semesters passed. Each time I taught the class I used this activity with these persons who wanted to become a teacher in my Introduction to Education class. After I had asked the questions to them about teachers making a difference in their lives it dawned on me, did I thank or celebrate a teacher that impacted me? Sadly the answer was no! I was asking teachers-to-be about their teachers who made a difference in their lives and I had not made an attempt to honor someone who helped me. 

I had been talking with someone who told me, my sixth grade teacher had retired but was living in New Jersey. This was my opportunity to act. This was an opportunity to share my thanks for exemplary teaching. She took a special pleasure in having her class learn to play the flute. We learned to read music and perform as a community; she encouraged learning about other cultures in social studies, and she went well above the Three R’s.  She exhorted all of us to go to college, to do our best, to think and explore, to read and discover.

When I was in her class I thought she was an older person. How is it we see our teachers when we are younger as old, when they really are not? But young or old the opportunity to thank her was in front of me. After the years of somewhat chiding others to be thankful for teachers who helped us, who were extraordinary, here was my chance to “do right,” modeling behavior.

I found her address in Ocean City, New Jersey and wrote a letter to thank her for all she did to help me. I also remembered her first and last name that I addressed on the envelope, Elma M. Huffnagle. I hoped the address was correct and hoped she would receive my letter of thanks.

I sent the letter, acknowledging all of the good she did, thirty-three years earlier. That way I could at least tell my Introduction to Education class I was walking the talk. I had met my obligation! But, it had taken me more than three decades to acknowledge my best teacher’s work, her contribution to my life and education. 

Was this all there was to celebrating her life’s work, her help in my development? Though I had made the effort to tell Ms. Huffnagle she mattered, she made a difference in my life, my thank you seemed shallow. Was I doing this to assuage my feelings of being unappreciative?

To my surprise I received a reply from her a week or so after I had sent the letter to her. Her first line to me was: “What a lovely surprise!” Her handwriting, one of my weakest skills in her classroom, was perfect.

“Your letter made my day-month-year! Every once –in-awhile I hear from one of my “old” pupils and I feel, “oh, so good” until I realize that you were all superior children and I really didn’t have much to do with your success.”

Left: Ms. Elma M. Huffnagle – 1958

Ms. Huffnagle was pleased to hear from a former student and did not want to take credit for the outcome. In her letter she apologized for being tardy in replying to me. Yet her recollection of me was amazing. She had remembered that I was interested in music and I had played in the Assembly for the upper grades. How was that possible? 

I began to think of my elementary school years, her classroom, and how she had made a significant impact upon me. Yet she was unwilling to take credit for her hard work, nurturing and support. I began to reminisce about all of my teachers at Fairhill School; however, none seemed as superb as her.

In reaching out to Ms. Huffnagle to tell her thank you, I realized that what mattered most was letting her know how impactful she was to my life. Indeed there was no one in my entire twelve years in public school who approached her ability to capture my attention, to help students, she worked with gifted and those who had challenges with the same zeal. She met us at our level, she challenged each of us to do our best, she encouraged us and it took me thirty years to acknowledge her contributions to the making of me.

Ms. Elma Huffnagle, front row at our graduation in 1960. You can guess who Joseph Baust is in the picture

In reflection I wished I had contacted her earlier. The next time I met my Introduction to Education class, I decided to not only encourage others to reach out in appreciation to those who they remembered. Indeed I think about how important it is to share one’s gratitude for those who are our helpers. In the next Introduction class we agreed, being grateful for those who teach is a “must.” The kind of thanks may not be what our teacher believed they sought at that moment or in reflection. Yet celebrating what they do is a form of gratitude is unequivocal and matters. 

Do not wait for thirty years to thank those teachers who have impacted your life! In these times especially it is important for teachers to hear they have made a difference for us. As Ms. Huffnagle said at the end of her letter, “You made me happy.” Let us celebrate those unsung heroes who give so much to us.


What you say is so true! We should all take time to reach out and share our gratitude to those who have taught us!