Although both his parents were teachers, Chad Erickson pursued a degree in physics as an undergraduate. But during his junior year in college, he worked in the planetarium. Elementary school students on field trips would visit, and Erickson found so rewarding the opportunity to engage with these young learners that he changed majors.
After graduating with a degree in elementary education with a focus on science, he began teaching fourth grade. While teaching, Erickson earned a master’s degree in educational leadership and moved into administration, first as an assistant principal and then a principal at elementary schools in Wisconsin, where he grew up.
In 2013, the allure of warmer winters and the chance to be closer to his in-laws pulled Erickson, his wife, and their three children to Sarasota, Florida, where he was hired to be the principal at Bay Haven School of Basics Plus and his wife a student teacher supervisor at the University of South Florida.
Having grown up in a household of educators, having married an educator, having taught, having three children in the school system, and now having served for years as a principal, Erickson has a unique window into all the things little and big that teachers and support staff do for kids beyond just classroom instruction. And these things serve as endless sources of inspiration.
Teachers are tireless workers. They take home papers to grade in the evening after their own children have gone to bed. They communicate with students’ parents and guardians, sharing achievements or reaching out about struggles. On weekends, they plan, they communicate, they research.
Some, like recently retired science teacher Rolf Hansen, will plant an entire food forest, leaving a vibrant lasting green space at Bay Haven where students can connect with nature and experience the joys of watching sugarcane grow and mulberries and bananas ripen.
At the end of every school year, Erickson will hear from parents who were so grateful that their child’s teacher would tutor the student for free, before or after school, or during lunch or the teacher’s planning period. These teachers provide important undercurrents of support that help students grow. Why? As Erickson notes, “To be helpful…. They are giving up time to help the kids and help the parents in a humble way, just to be supportive.”
He knows of teachers who on weekends will attend birthday parties of their kindergarten students or stand near the finish line of a student’s 5-K race—to be there for these young learners, to show them that they care.
Great teachers are trusting, consistent, loving adults who provide a safe environment for their students. As Erickson said, “Kids count on predictability.” For many students, their classrooms are the steadiest thing in their lives, and the love and support they get from their teachers is essential to their wellbeing.
Teachers, beyond being subject area experts, nurture their students’ emotional development. As Erickson said, “We’re not building a computer at a manufacturing plant; we’re helping to create young adults and good citizens.” Forming positive emotional connections with students and modeling positive behavior in the classroom, in the halls, at recess is huge.
It’s not just the teachers either. Erickson points out that the support staff at schools play such a valuable role in the emotional development of young people. Individuals like the aide in the health clinic at Bay Haven provide steady, caring love that helps students recover when they face major setbacks or just skin their knees.
These remarkable individuals don’t announce the extra work they do or expect any reward. They do it because they care about their students and want them to succeed, to thrive. These teachers understand that their students’ emotional development, their ability to grow, to recover from challenges, and to care for others is as important as the test scores that identify achievement.
Across Sarasota County, in each of its schools, no matter the grade level, teachers are doing these things every day, every week, every year. Too often, they go unrecognized, but they all make a difference.
Teacher appreciation day and week have passed, and soon May will give way to June, and teachers will leave on their summer break. But their work won’t end. Teachers rarely unplug. Great teachers will begin replaying the year, thinking about what went well and what didn’t. They’ll begin prepping for the next school year, updating lessons, planning new activities, learning new skills, getting ready to teach new classes.
Just as they continue to work, we must continue to recognize all they do, all things little and big, well beyond May. Today, the community support of teachers is vital. Just as teachers make a difference in the lives of their students, we can make a difference in theirs.