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Image Principals Reflect on
Teachers Who Made a
Difference in Their Lives

Who was the teacher who had the most significant impact on your life? That's the question we posed to our Principal Files principals. Their responses confirm that the teachers we most respect are those who challenge us and push us to achieve; and, most important, those who take time to form relationships with their students. Included: Eight principals honor their former teachers.

We decided to ask our Principal Files principals to share their stories of the teachers who most influenced them to become the principals and people they are today.

We expected to hear a wide range of stories, and that is just what we heard. But what was perhaps most surprising was the repetition throughout their varied stories of several clear themes. Our principals stories reinforce the idea that the teachers we remember most fondly are those who expected the most of us as students; their rigorous classes and high expectations and the way they connected their curricula to the real word -- in a time long before those became much-bandied buzzwords -- are clear.

But the theme that stands out clearest of all is that all these teachers understood the importance of making special connections with their students. In the world of the new 3 Rs -- rigor and relevance and relationships -- it is clear that the most memorable teachers were those who took the time to nurture relationships.

Looking to celebrate Teacher Appreciation Day? The inspirational stories below prove that when teachers take time to build relationships, the rest of it follows. Students care because they're cared for, and they work hard to earn the trust that caring teachers provide.


Today, Jason Bednar is principal at Owen Elementary School, Naperville, Illinois, but once upon a time he was a second grader, one of the lucky students in Mrs. (Janet) Hincks' class at Indian Plaines Elementary School, which happens to be a school on the other side of the district where Bednar works today.

Bednar most fondly remembers a unit on the flora and fauna of northeastern Illinois. Mrs. Hinck encouraged her students to create a project that would show what they learned about the region's plants and animals. Most students drew pictures or found pictures in magazines, recalled Bednar. He, however, took the project a step further; he visited a nearby forest preserve and gathered leaves and seeds from the ground to create a scrapbook of sorts.

"What made Mrs. Hinck fabulous was how she made each of us feel as though our project was worthy of placement in an art gallery or museum," said Bednar. "We went around the room and looked at each other's work and talked about what we learned. From that moment on, I found enjoyment in everything we did in school and felt as though I could accomplish anything."

When Bednar was a senior in high school, students were encouraged to invite their most influential educator to their senior graduation dinner -- and he invited Mrs. Hinck.

I am looking for the same qualities that Mrs. Hinck modeled for me.

Now, as a principal, when Bednar visits classrooms in his school, he is looking for Mrs. Hinck, the teacher who lit the spark in him to become the teacher and principal he is today.

"I am searching for that person who helped engage me in learning and taught me to learn individually and collaboratively," said Bednar. I am looking for the same qualities of individualization of instruction, caring support for all students, and a commitment to the success of each student that Mrs. Hinck modeled for me.


Nina Newlin remembers her high school French teacher, a tiny person with a huge presence who scared all the younger students in school because her standards were so high.

"I transferred into her class because I didn't feel challenged by my own teacher," said Newlin. What Newlin got in return for that transfer was a class where there was no such thing as off-task behavior; it simply wasn't allowed.

"I worked so hard for her that year," recalled Newlin. "I learned an incredible amount, and I can still remember the stories from French history that she made come alive.

Most of all, she taught me that it wasn't about what I felt as an adolescent, whether or not I was mad at my mom or one of my friends, but that it was all about the love of the subject and the learning."

Those lessons were reinforced a year later by her senior-level math teacher.

"We were the first class in an all-girls' school in 1969 to be offered AP calculus," said Newlin. "A male teacher was brought in from a local boys' prep school to teach the class. The first day he met with us, he told us that he only gave three grades to AP Calc students: A+, A or A-. You would think that that would make the class pretty easy, but I have never, not even at the doctoral level, worked so hard in a class to earn an A.

He was able to get every single student in that class to work her hardest by assuming from day one that we would be successful.

Physically, he was unprepossessing, and he was no social charmer. However, he was able to involve, engage, and excite us about learning, so we put everything we had into mastering the math. He was able to get every single student in that class to work her hardest and to be successful in a subject that was not considered a natural fit for girls. He did it by assuming from day one that we would be successful and that we would meet and even exceed the very high standards that he set."

And the students all did, added Newlin.

"I hope I have had the effect on at least a few of my students that both of these teachers had on me," added Newlin, who recently moved from the principalship to a district-level (Kent County Public Schools, Chestertown, Maryland) position as supervisor of mathematics.


Principal Joe Corcoran hopes he is able to influence some child in the same way his fourth-grade teacher, Mr. (Bill) Lucas, did for him.

"Bill was one of those teachers I connected with," said Corcoran recently. "Perhaps that connection had something to do with the fact that Lucas was the first male teacher I had."

Or maybe it was the special relationship that developed.

"I remember to this day how some of my buddies and I were on a mission to find out where Mr. Lucas lived," Corcoran recalled. "We eventually did find out and surprised him at his house.

Another time we had a class gathering at a local McDonald's in the evening. We could cash in our grades of A for free cheeseburgers. It was a McDonald's promotion, but Mr. Lucas set it up for us to meet as a class."

Corcoran's connection with Lucas lasted well past the fourth grade. Eventually, the two worked in the same school district. Lucas has retired now, but the two still see each other from time to time.

"Through the years, I've run into Bill and told him he is the reason I am where I am today," said Corcoran, who is principal at Harriet Gifford Elementary School in Elgin, Illinois. "I've always felt it important to let him know he influenced me to enter the profession. It's my hope that somehow, someway, I can influence a student to do the same. That would bring things full circle."

If the story of Joe Corcoran and Bill Lucas and how they came to work together has you shaking your head and humming "It's a Small World After All," you need to sit down for Marguerite McNeely's connection to her teacher, Donald Robinson. The story has more twists and turns than a Stephen King novel. At first, Robinson was her fifth-grade math teacher, but then their paths continued to cross as he became her junior high school assistant principal, then high school principal, then principal for whom she worked, then colleague and, finally, hired hand!

A Role Model
To the End

It was a dozen or so years ago. Technology was still pretty new to schools, and Principal Brian Hazeltine spent a good bit of time encouraging teachers at his Airdrie, Alberta (Canada), school to improve their computer literacy skills. At the minimum, he wanted all his staff to develop their word processing skills.

"I had a teacher who was in her last year before retirement," recalled Hazeltine. "She had never learned to type, so my expectations, frankly, were minimal. But so often when I would stop by her room at the end of the day, I would see her at the keyboard practicing her typing skills or learning about word processing."

Hazeltine has often used that story to serve as an example of lifelong learning and to motivate other teachers to reach outside their comfort zones to develop new skills.

"That's the way I want to finish, still trying to grow and hone my skills, even in my final years in education," added Hazeltine.

"Mr. Robinson attempted to keep my mind on math when he was my teacher," McNeely told Education World. "I was not a 'bad' student, but perhaps I was an overly social one. I liked to talk when I finished my work, which was not acceptable to him. I also chewed gum, and he hated gum. So I spent many recesses sitting on the walk writing my multiplication facts and doing long division.

Perhaps that is why, to this day, I can do math with the greatest of ease."

After fifth grade, McNeely recalls sailing free until she hit eighth grade, and Mr. Robinson became assistant principal of the K-12 school she attended.

"His rules had not changed, nor had my behavior... so I had many chats with him about chewing gum and talking too much!"

But by then, McNeely was picking up some new habits -- like skipping class -- that gave her and Mr. Robinson a little more one-on-one time. By her senior year, Robinson had become principal of the school, and he even wrote a recommendation for a college scholarship that McNeely received.

"He respected my abilities, he just did not like my habits, I guess," said McNeely.

While she was in college, Mr. Robinson invited McNeely to substitute teach in his school when she was free between semesters. "He always told me that I would one day become a teacher," McNeely noted. "I would grin and respond, 'I hope not.' "

But Mr. Robinson was right.

"I enjoyed subbing, and I became a teacher. Then, believe it or not, he hired me as one of his teachers. I worked hard to learn from him and many others."

Mr. Robinson retired, but that was not the last time their paths would cross.

"I was teaching at a school that needed a teacher in the middle of the year, so I called Mr. Robinson and told him he should apply," McNeely explained. "He did, and we worked together as peers."

"Mr. Robinson probably had the most impact upon me because he never strayed from his standards," McNeely added. "He always treated me with consideration and respect, which are two traits I attempt to employ myself each day. He is not the reason I became a principal, but he is the reason I am an educator. I sincerely thank him for his guidance and faith in me."

It seems fitting that the story would end at this point. (You're thinking Mr. Robinson must be 80 years old by this point, right?) But to make the story even a bit more bizarre, when McNeely became a principal, she hired him to teach for her.

"Our paths had traveled full circle -- from being his student to being his boss," said McNeely, adding, "We never know where life will take us."


When Principal Keith Ingram was a teacher, his principal was Dr. Mary Ann Gunderson. They first worked together at a school of 250 students. Soon they moved on together to open a 1,200-student school, the largest elementary school in Georgia at the time.

Too Many to Mention

Les Potter can't think of any single teacher who most influenced him. "Many of my K-12 and college teachers, as well as coaches, have had very positive influences on me," Potter told Education World.

"I got into education because of my college basketball coach, but I have stayed in education for 38 years because of the teachers who surrounded me.

Today, as a principal, I continue to take my inspiration from all the hard-working and dedicated professionals who strive to make their students the best they can be."

A few years later, at their end-of-year conference, Dr. Gunderson challenged Ingram to go into school administration.

"She felt I had the skills to be a successful administrator," Ingram told Education World. "I had never given it much thought, but I started the reflecting process. I talked over the decision with my wife, and we agreed it would be a wise move."

Over the next several years, Ingram and his family made many sacrifices as he obtained his admin certification. "Dr. Gunderson continued to support me during the process with encouragement and project ideas," he said.

Soon Ingram would be appointed assistant principal, serving alongside Principal Gunderson.

But Dr. Gunderson didn't stop her encouragement then. She kept after Ingram to go back to school to earn his doctorate.

"I have been in administration for 10 years now, and I have really enjoyed the challenges of creating a safe and exciting learning environment," said Ingram, who is principal at Johnston Elementary School in Woodstock, Georgia.

"I give much of the credit to Mary Ann Gunderson for encouraging me to take the big step," he added. "I am grateful to her for her belief in me."


When Frank Hagen was a high-school student back in Scranton, Pennsylvania, he had the same teacher for geometry in 10th grade, chemistry in 11th grade, and physics in 12th grade.

"Long before educators began talking about the importance of rigor, relevance, and relationships, Sister Mary Talbot was practicing all three," said Hagen. "She had the ability to differentiate her lessons and use local examples to make lessons real."

"There was no mistaking the fact that her classes were full of rigor," added Hagen. "Sister Mary Talbot believed in the old adage that to pass her class, you had to earn it. There was no curve to her tests and exams; and homework was a nightly chore to be mastered by the student before entering her class the next day.

While we students complained to one another about the amount of work and the apparent speed with which we were moving through the curriculum, we were not only mastering the material but, most important, learning how to transfer our learning to other subjects as well as life. Each of us knew that she cared about us, so we cared about learning from her."

After graduating from college, Hagen went to work for the DuPont Company, but he made it a point to check in with Sister Mary Talbot whenever he was home visiting friends and family.

"Part of Sister Mary Talbot still lives with me," added Hagen. "I carried her teaching style with me when I left the private sector and pursued a career in public education. The life skill lessons that I learned from her -- rigor, relevance and, most important, the importance of relationships -- in addition to the geometry, chemistry, and physics, have served me well in both my teaching and administrative careers."

Principal Contributors to This Article

The following members of Education Worlds Principal Files team reflected on their most influential teachers for this article.
  • Jason Bednar, principal, Owen Elementary School, Naperville, Illinois
  • Joe Corcoran, principal, Harriet Gifford Elementary School, Elgin, Illinois
  • Frank J. Hagen, principal, Saint Michaels (Maryland) Middle/High School
  • Brian Hazeltine, principal (retired), adjunct graduate faculty, Cornerstone University, Grand Rapids, Michigan
  • Dr. Keith Ingram, principal, Johnston Elementary School, Woodstock, Georgia
  • Marguerite McNeely, principal, Hayden R. Lawrence Middle School, Deville, Louisiana
  • Virginia Strong Newlin, supervisor of mathematics, Kent County Public Schools, Chestertown, Maryland
  • Dr. Les Potter, principal, Silver Sands Middle School, Port Orange, Florida

    To explore other practical articles from the Principal Files series, go to our Principal Files Archive.

    Click here to learn how you might contribute to a future "Principal Files" article.


Article by Gary M. Hopkins
Education World®
Copyright © 2009 Education World


Updated 04/16/2009