I did not want to die choking on a piece of chicken-fried steak. But there I was, gasping for air in the fifth-grade lunchroom, the eyes of all my peers glued to my contorted face.
The noisy cafeteria, filled with more than a hundred students laughing and talking over one another, grew silent as my coughing became louder. That was when Mr. Davis sprung into action. He was sitting at the teachers' table, where I had been staring while I struggled to breathe. I saw him shove the remaining bite of his sandwich into his mouth and sprint over toward me. He wrapped his arms around my small frame, pressed his arms into my stomach and forcefully thrust.
The rubbery bite of steak flew out of my mouth. The crisis averted, my classmates went back to their sandwiches and Little Debbie snacks. I silently wished for a sinkhole to appear in the cafeteria and swallow me into the bowels of the building.
It was years before I could approach chicken-fried steak again. But I've never forgotten Mr. Davis' quick-witted heroism. When I think about my most memorable elementary school teachers, he comes to mind first.
I asked a few dozen people to describe their favorite elementary school teachers. Some of them were decades removed from that era of their lives, others much younger. Yet nearly everyone had an answer pretty quickly. Some of them were like Mr. Davis, who performed a memorable act of kindness. One attorney told me about Mr. Hogan, his kindergarten teacher, who dropped him off at home one day when his mother didn't pick him up after school.
His sister recalled an incident with Miss Rosa, her first-grade teacher. Her parents had invited Miss Rosa to their home for dinner when they heard how nice she had been to their daughter when she refused to eat green eggs and ham on religious grounds during a lesson on Dr. Seuss. After the dinner, her mother mentioned how sweet Miss Rosa was, and made an offhand remark about her appearance.
The next day at school, Miss Rosa asked what her mother had said after the dinner. The young girl innocently replied, "She said you were chubby."
"Miss Rosa died laughing," the woman recalled. "She never got offended."
The most effective teachers, the ones who advance their students' learning the most, aren't always the kindest, funniest or most charismatic. But they all make a lasting impression on young children.
"Great teaching seems to have less to do with our knowledge and skills than with our attitude toward our students, our subject and our work," wrote educator Maria Orlando in an essay in Faculty Focus.
A study on the traits of exceptional teachers done by Teach For America found that they set big goals for their students, and that they constantly re-evaluate their approaches and techniques in order to improve their effectiveness. They have a relentless focus on improving student achievement, and plan exhaustively and work purposefully toward it. They share the attributes of the most successful students: perseverance and leadership focused on outcomes.
The favorite elementary teachers described to me most often were the ones who made a student feel special, nurtured and valued. Adults talked about the one teacher who encouraged their abilities, helped them see themselves in a different way, or helped them understand a difficult subject. They mentioned kind teachers who managed to be stern and in charge without ever being mean.
Their stories were reflected in the answers my children offered. My son talked about his first-grade teacher, Ms. DePasquale.
"She took everybody's ideas into account," he said. "She was also the most laid-back and funniest, but when she needed to get serious, she was stern."
My daughter said Mr. Kelly, her third-grade teacher, "helped me find new ways of thinking about things." He challenged her.
That was different than what my cousin's wife, Zara, remembered about her favorite elementary teacher. Zara was born in a small town in Pakistan, and her family sent her at a young age to a well-known boarding school to be educated by nuns.
"Sister Mercedes, I remember her so well," Zara said about her first-grade teacher. "I was away from my family, and she was so warm and kind and loving. That was the one thing I needed at that time."