April 6, 2021

#TeacherLove: On the Shoulders of Giants


“If I have seen further than others, it is by standing
upon the shoulders of giants.”

~ Sir Isaac Newton

Editors Note: This post, originally titled, “A Week of Gratitude #ThankATeacher #TLC2014,” was first featured on Sean’s blog, “Constant Learning….” on May 11, 2014. Sean revised this piece to share on Tchers’ Voice.

None of us make it completely on our own. Family, friends, good fortune, and often a lot of teachers serve as the parents of possibility. I was acutely aware of that truth in my own life, when in May 2014 I was announced as the National Teacher of the Year.


For Teacher Appreciation Week, I sent cards and photos with appreciation and gratitude to five foundational teachers in my life. And I even popped in on two of them. Below is a re-post of my reflection on that experience:

The past couple of months have given me great cause to reflect on the people who have shaped my life. I was able to give my family the opportunity to meet President Obama, I was able to share the joy that has come into my life through students and colleagues at Patapsco HS and CFA, and this week I was able to extend some gratitude to the Teachers who made that all possible by unlocking my potential. There are certainly more than these five who are deserving, but here are five educators who shaped the man I am today:

Monday: Mr. Ryan, 4th Grade Teacher

Mr Ryan's CardI sent my first card of the week to Mr. Ryan, who instilled a love of learning within me and made school a joyful experience. He laid the groundwork for my belief in the importance of authentic experiences by having our class experience chicks hatching from eggs in an incubator in the classroom, and giving us the chance to bring them home for a night. One of my most vivid childhood memories is laying in the backyard on a warm spring day watching those chicks hop through the grass. He also forged pen pal relationships for us with a school in Ireland. My pen pal Wendy and I exchanged letters for almost seven years and eventually even met for a meal together. This experience taught me lessons about making connections outside of one’s familiar surroundings, but also about how similar experiences and the human condition can be no matter where one lives.

Tuesday: Professor Stefan Wheelock

Professor Wheelock may still be the most intelligent man I have ever come to know. His ability to analyze a text, and put it into conversation with philosophy and a historical context, was absolutely captivating to me as a college sophomore. He had my brain firing on all cylinders as I pushed myself to truly synthesize texts, identify problems in critical analysis, and put them into conversation. Perhaps his greatest attribute, though, was the resolve he displayed in the face of this ugly incident toward the end of the first course I took with him. I remember coming to class the night that noose was found on his desk. I remember class being canceled, and the shock and disgust on Professor Wheelock’s face when he met students outside his classroom. I also remember the resolve he had to press on, the fervor with which he continued to open our minds to the experiences and journeys of the “other,” and in doing so, engendered empathy I could not have otherwise known.

Wednesday: Brian Reagan, Cable Television Coordinator at Upper Merion High School

I was able to contribute a few sentences about Mr. Reagan, on the right in the top picture, to this Huffington Post article:

“Brian Reagan, a television production teacher at Upper Merion Area High School, was one of my teacher heroes. At a difficult time in my life, he believed in and valued me. He allowed my passion for sports to light my creativity and engage me in school work. More than that, he was a role model who showed me the kind of man I wanted to be: caring, joyful and generous. Mr. Reagan helped me see abilities in myself that I didn’t know were there, and modeled how I could put them to use doing the same for others.”

Beyond what I was limited to in the article, The Viking Channel, which Mr. Reagan coordinates, was my safe haven. I could work there until 8:00 or 9:00 pm editing sports montages, recording events, or shooting interviews. And in the process, I would not be at home when home was a chaotic and tumultuous place to be.

Thursday: Stacey Kalwa, English Chair at Patapsco High School

Stacy and SeanStacey hired me at Patapsco. She was my first Department Chair. She floated into my classroom during my first planning period as a teacher and showed me a master teacher at work. She charmed and disarmed any frustrated students. She captivated the classroom and pushed students to do their best work. And she did it with a group of what had been, to that point, under-achieving students who were not reading on grade level, and many of whom were well behind. She was organized and her materials were color coded. She was funny and personable. She was high energy and exuded high enthusiasm. She made students who weren’t good at reading and didn’t particularly like it, want to be in her classroom… and read. It was awesome to watch. It was incredibly important to me becoming an effective teacher. It was an experience all new teachers could benefit from having.

Friday: Tom Schurtz, AP English 11, Upper Merion

Tom SchurtzI took a half-personal day on Friday afternoon and went back to the high school I attended, where I arranged a surprise visit to Mr. Schurtz’s classroom with 15 minutes left in his last period of the day. We interrupted the class’s analysis of Waiting for Godot, which would normally be a no-no, but he took it in stride. It was trippy to be back in his classroom; it was fun to share some stories from 15 years ago with his current students. It was awesome to see that he still had the incredible energy and vigor that caused me to characterize his classroom presence this way in my ToY application:

“But when I walked into Mr. Schurtz’s room that fall, I was confronted with a new escape to the stories, experiences, and perspectives offered through the study of literature. There was no option not to learn in Mr. Schurtz’s room. He stalked a central aisle with the intensity of a spurred bull, unwilling to let students settle for mediocre analysis, and pressing us to further our criticism. One of my proudest moments as a student is when he read aloud to the class my introduction to an analysis of Huckleberry Finn as a coming-of-age story, drawing an analogy to a young brave venturing into the wilderness. He had recently derided our class for weak, effortless introductions, and I had spent most of the night revising my familiar patterns in pursuit of something meaningful. If I’m being honest, I spent that night in pursuit of more than an introduction. I spent it seeking to produce a feeling of pride in an adult I admired, my positive role model. Mr. Schurtz continued to push me and I developed a passion for literature and put aside my home life hangups.”

Mr. Schurtz and Mr. Reagan got to meet my wife and son. After school, we got together with a few other teachers and high school classmates. They were my teachers more than half my lifetime ago, and I now see them through new eyes. Having been on the other side of the desks for eight years, I have an all new appreciation for who these men were, and who they still are today. They are two teachers who deeply love their work. Men who deeply love to help students grow to reach their full potential. Their energy and passion is infectious. They are life changers. They hold a high bar. And I continue to pursue it every day I step foot into the classroom and have another chance to make a difference for children.


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