The Care of One Teacher Can Make a Lifetime of Difference

Sometimes, if we're fortunate, a person can briefly enter into our lives and end up redirecting its entire course for the better. It's a powerful truth, and a common theme I'm noticing in our Inspired2Educate program, which asks educators to share stories about the teachers, administrators and school staff who inspired them to go into education.

What we're seeing is that a teacher's influence on a student -- no matter how long they shared a classroom -- can sometimes be so personal, so profound that it has a ripple effect for decades to come.

Take, for example, the story of James Robertson, currently an adjunct history professor at Montgomery County Community College in Pennsylvania and our most recent Inspired2Educate award recipient.

Early in his life, he tells us in his story, teachers recommended that he repeat the fourth grade. Experiencing what is now diagnosed as mild ADHD, dyslexia, and a vision impairment, it seemed Robertson needed additional time and study to reach the required academic benchmarks before advancing with the rest of his class.

That is, until his paths crossed with Miss Alma Ash, the school's reading specialist and trained psychologist.

"Miss Ash believed in me when everyone else in my school did not," Robertson remembers. "She immediately saw the need for me to get glasses to facilitate my seeing the blackboard. She was able to ascertain that my reading deficiencies were compounded by the fact that I had an attention deficit. Miss Ash explained to me that as a student, I could not just do what I liked, but I had to learn to like what I had to do."

With energetic dedication, patience, and creativity, Miss Alma Ash ultimately found a way to ignite a love of reading in Robertson. Recognizing his budding interest in Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, she presented him with a library card and free books about historical figures. She also worked with him one-on-one to increase his reading comprehension and confidence.

"Within one year, my reading level was at slightly higher than grade level and my IQ tests revealed that I was not dull normal," Robertson remembered. "She encouraged me, guided me and helped me tackle problems that, if not corrected, would have doomed me for life."

The profound positive impact Miss Ash had on Robertson ultimately motivated him to pursue a career in education. However, like his journey early on with reading, his path to teaching had some twists and turns along the way.

Robertson joined the Air Force after college, and later spent many years in distribution management for various Fortune 500 companies. But something about teaching -- its purpose and its promise -- kept calling him back.

"You only give up on a dream if you give up on the dream," Robertson said. Unwilling to give up on the dream of becoming an educator, he eventually began a third career as an adjunct history professor. "I'm 70 now, and I get a chance to do for the rest of my life what I wanted to do all my life. The man I am today and the teacher I became can be traced to the loving work of Miss Alma Ash."

If she hadn't taken the time, effort, and interest in identifying a solution to Robertson's reading challenges, he said, he doesn't know where he would be today. "I know one thing -- I wouldn't be in front of a class of college kids!"

When asked what advice he'd give to those considering a career in education, Robertson had this to say:

"The rewards that you will get will be better than anyplace else that you could ever work. I was a decorated officer in the Air Force. I wrote field assessments during the Israeli conflict. I've run massive distribution centers. I've turned failing corporate operations around. But I've never experienced anything like the thrills and the emotional success of being a teacher."

Kermit S. Randa is chief executive officer of PeopleAdmin, the leader in cloud-based talent management solutions for education and government. He has 20 years of executive experience leading firms in the software industry.