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‘Every child needs a champion’: Meet the teachers who inspired some of the country’s education leaders

To mark Teacher Appreciation Week, Chalkbeat went in search of the educators who changed the lives of the people you read about in our stories.

We asked a handful of influential figures to tell us about the teacher whose action, lesson, or presence made a lasting impact on them. The stories they shared — about the teacher who trusted a future chancellor with a beloved guitar, the one who offered advanced books and a lesson in being “cool,” and another who used their city’s history of black activism to reach students — are worth a read.

Here’s what they told us.

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Mandy Manning, 2018 National Teacher of the Year

Living in a single parent household is really busy all of the time. So my teachers were extremely, extremely important to me, because they were the adults in my life who were supporting me when I was going through those more difficult years. In particular, I had this teacher in middle school. We had just moved to California, and I didn’t have any friends, I didn’t know anybody, I was starting at a brand-new school. And it was seventh grade, so you can imagine.

So here I was, a brand new student, walking into a new school in a new city and a new state. The first day, I had several teachers, which was also something that was new to me. I had gone to a regular sixth-grade class in an elementary school, with one teacher. I remember distinctly walking into my English class with Mrs. Baker. Mrs. Baker was a teacher of color. And Mrs. Baker was so kind. As soon as I walked in the door, I could tell just by her facial expression and her smile that she cared about me.

I was just this new kid. She welcomed me in, and she completely transformed so many things about how I thought about myself. Because of her, I was moved up to honors English the next year, and I also participated in mock trial. I actually got to be one of the lawyers in mock trial. She instilled this confidence in me that I don’t know if I would have had. I fell in love with English and kept going. But the thing I really carried with me was the belief that I could try new things and I could accomplish things I never thought possible. And then becoming an educator, I carry that lesson with me. I welcome all of my kids with an open heart and open mind. My goal is always to help them see how amazing they are.


Gregory reviewing school data with Sussex Avenue Renew School Principal Darleen Gearhart. Patrick Wall

A. Robert Gregory, Newark Public Schools interim superintendent

Every child needs a champion; someone who believes in them and encourages them to love learning while igniting their curiosity. For me, in my early years, that person was none other than Ms. Pat Longordo, my first-grade teacher at Harriet Tubman Elementary School.

Ms. Longordo greeted her students daily with a warm hug. She never missed a day of work, and moreover, she allowed you to make mistakes and used them as teachable moments. Her warm heart, passion and commitment are attributes every educator should possess. She helped me personally fall in love with reading and poetry at a young age, and taught me the importance and power of words. She dared to care for me and my classmates when so many were losing hope, and reminded us daily that we would one day change America.


Richard Carranza, New York City schools chancellor

Dr. Alfredo Valenzuela, who taught me guitar in the third, fourth grade, was one of those teachers who always made me feel like I was his only student.

My dad was a guitar player — a really good guitar player, but worked all the time. I couldn’t touch his guitar. When we would practice the guitar at school, [Dr. V] would say, take the guitar home! But I was afraid, my parents were afraid, that if we broke it they didn’t have the money to replace it.

I remember Dr. V actually came to my home and brought the guitar and spoke to my mom. He told her, look, this is what they’re for. I have lots of ‘em. If they break, don’t worry about it. But they’re not going to break, because your sons are very responsible young men. I remember that number one, the teacher came to my home, two, he called me a very responsible young man, and three, I had a guitar to practice at home. I would say that was transformational for me.

To this day, I stay in touch with him. He’s gone on to teach music to many, many, many other students. He was just one of those people who I thought, if I can be like Dr. V, I’ll be OK.


Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office

Rich Buery, chief of policy and public affairs for KIPP

In my family, education came first. My mother taught public high school for 33 years in East New York, Brooklyn, where I grew up. Former students constantly approached her to thank her. Because of her, I grew up thinking teachers were rock stars. My middle school homeroom teacher Cheryl Virginia confirmed it.

I attended I.S. 383, a public middle school in Bushwick. Like East New York, Bushwick experienced high poverty and crime, and poor educational outcomes. I.S. 383 served gifted and talented black and brown students from these and other low-income Brooklyn neighborhoods. Ms. Virginia created an environment that was comfortable, lively, and nurturing. She taught us we could do anything, and that “to whom much is given, much is required.” She introduced me to books that were far above my reading level, and made me believe I could tackle them.

She encouraged me to be my best self. I remember acting out once, trying to be “cool” to impress a classmate. She explained to me in a blunt but loving way that the way to be cool was to be myself, not to try to be like someone else. Her respect for young people helped me respect myself.

I was fortunate to have Ms. Virginia and other teachers in my life who inspired me to spend my career fighting for high quality public education. Today, as I support the work of great teachers at KIPP schools nationwide, Ms. Virginia remains a beacon.


State Rep. Janet Buckner, vice chair of the Colorado House Education Committee

I will never forget my 1st grade teacher, Mrs. Johnson. Even to this day I can recall every characteristic about her. Where I grew up, I was the only black child in my class, and unfortunately black students were not allowed in kindergarten at the time. Despite this educational setback, Mrs. Johnson saw the potential in me at an early age and instilled values regarding the importance of reading and comprehension.

This led me to practice every night by reading books to my grandmother. Just knowing that I could accomplish this fundamental elementary task as a child created confidence and ownership with regard to my education.

To this day, I credit Mrs. Johnson with my academic success and my acceptance of people who look different from me. Educators have the unique ability to inspire and create lifelong impressions on students. I cannot overstate how important it was for me to have Mrs. Johnson teach me that I was no different from the other students in my class, and that I could accomplish any goal that I set my young mind to. I will always value her kindness and dedication to teaching me the fundamentals of reading.


Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers

A few weeks before I became the national president of the AFT, I asked several of my former teachers, including Mr. Swift, Mr. Dillon, Ms. Gaffney, and of course, my mom, to join me at our convention. I wanted them all there with me to share in the honor of becoming the leader of a teacher’s union, because I’m here thanks to the support of so many other teachers and support personnel with whom I worked over the years, and so many kids who taught me as much as I taught them.

Mr. Swift taught me the value of hard work. Mr. Dillon taught me to teach for the stars. Miss Gaffney taught me confidence. And my mom taught me to repair the world. Teachers everywhere do that every day for millions of kids, and for that, I thank them.


Chris Rogers (left) and Ms. Simpkins (right)
Chris Rogers (left) and Ms. Simpkins (right)

Christopher Rogers, lead director at JustMaybeCo and a Chalkbeat Reader Advisory Board member

Ms. Simpkins was my Hi-Q advisor, our version of the academic decathlon. But in truth, she was and is so much more. When I was in high school in the mid-2000s, she was part of the number of black teachers who grew up in Chester, Pennsylvania. What I loved about Ms. Simpkins was her commitment to teaching us the critical skills we needed to navigate a world that is not set up for many of us, mostly low-income black and brown children, to succeed (dare I say survive).

She had a poster on her classroom wall of a famous Martin Luther King quote: “Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.” She would remind us that King spent time in our hometown, attending Crozer Seminary and studying under local pastors. It wasn’t just that King was here. It was that there was something that everyday Chester folks offered King that allowed him to fully commit to his “drum major for justice” instinct.

This righteous belief in our potential to be able to contribute to something greater than ourselves was modeled in her actions as a community historian and arts advocate. She has collected priceless artifacts of the black experience in Chester, exploring the way black folks have made and remade the city through various struggles against racism and political corruption.

Ms. Simpkins, while being retired from the school district, has yet to really … retire. She’s currently working to rehab the historic YWCA building in our Overtown section of the city as a place where young people and families can gather to learn about the history of the city and collaborate in various forms of art-making and community-building activities.


Bror Saxberg, ‎vice president for learning science at the ‎Chan Zuckerberg Initiative

My handwriting, as many of my current and past colleagues will attest, has never been a reason to bring me into a project. It’s been a challenge stretching back to the start of schooling – it required a near-divine intervention to let me move from first to second grade because of it.

Several teachers over time have made heroic interventions to help me keep moving forward in spite of my dysgraphia. The one I’ll call out now is Dr. Judy Lightfoot, one of my high school English teachers. Years after leaving high school, I discovered that the teachers at my high school held a faculty meeting to discuss “What to do with Bror’s writing – it’s so bad!”

Apparently, and unsurprisingly, even though I tried to type everything I could, many teachers at the high school struggled through my handwriting, to the point where they felt they just couldn’t evaluate my work to give me feedback, or in some cases tell if I knew what I was doing. Hence the discussion.

Dr. Lightfoot stepped in at the meeting to stop it. Apparently, she said something to the effect, “This is ridiculous – we should not be talking about this. I read his writing fine. If any of you have any issues with his writing, just bring it to me, and I will read it for you.”

She did more than support me as her student – she offered to spend her own time with other teachers, to help me succeed despite a problem that was impossible for me to solve. The meeting (or at least that part of the meeting) was over, and I only heard about her intervention with her colleagues many years later. Because of Dr. Lightfoot and other teachers who similarly problem-solved on how to help me succeed, often without me realizing it, I kept on learning, through many years, many degrees. Looking back, it’s their work that now inspires me to pay it forward through my work to find ways to better support great educators to help imperfect learners like me — and all of us.


Jennifer McCormick speaks during a 2016 campaign event.

Jennifer McCormick, Indiana schools chief

My fourth-grade teacher Mrs. Montgomery was instrumental in really setting a tone in the classroom. Literally we all thought we were the favorite student — but now that I look back on it, we really were. She was at Westwood Elementary, our tiny little elementary school out in a cornfield.

I lived out in the country, and we had a long bus ride to school. I remember I’d had a rough morning at home trying to get myself together. Missing the bus was not an option for me because my parents worked. When I showed up at school, I was a flat out mess.

I had these bobby pins that had big frogs on the ends. I remember her taking the time to help me fix my hair and help me re-group at my desk and saying, “You’re going to have a good day.”

I remember that day so clearly. She came in and really saved the day. It’s not just about math, spelling or social studies — it was beyond that. It was probably two minutes, not about academics, just about me as a person and my well-being.

As a teacher, I remembered that time. I had kids who would come in all frazzled. I remember that two minutes of my time could impact 12 hours of their day.

She was at my wedding, and when I became state superintendent, we talked. She was masterful at the relationships piece. Now, having the opportunity to go into a lot of classrooms, that is a skill. I think I continue to hold that close because any time that kids just feel like you care about them, it just goes a lot further than if they think you really don’t care about them. The power of a great educator really impacts you forever.


Thanks to our partners at Yoobi for supporting our Teacher Appreciation campaign.

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