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Make a Difference

We started 4th quarter at my school this past Monday, and I'm blown away by how quickly the year has flown by.  At this time last year, I was frantically filling out job applications and wondering where I would end up and what my life would look like a year from then.  Now, I can say that I'm happily employed in a career that fills me with joy, fulfillment, and a drive to keep on changing the lives of young people.

The other day, one of my students came to my office first thing in the morning just to tell me that he had been awarded a full academic scholarship to the school of his dreams ($42,000 a year!).  He told me that he was sure that a large reason for this scholarship was the letter of recommendation I wrote for him, and thanked me profusely for helping him further his goals (he wants to major in tuba performance and music education - this kid is awesome!).  It was the absolute best way to start my day.  I've been thinking a lot about this conversation lately, and it has helped fuel me through the very tough and draining parts of my job.

The ability to connect with young people is critical for what I do.  In some regards, I feel like this is a natural thing for me.  I enjoy getting to know what makes students "tick" - what are their sparks that make them unique?  What motivates them?  I'm genuinely interested in hearing kids' life stories, and I have a burning desire to help them overcome any obstacles that are preventing them from achieving greatness.  At other times, though, I feel like I struggle.  I mean, I'm a brand new counselor, so I'm still figuring out how to break through with those students who have thick walls around them.  Being new is also tricky because students don't know much about me at this point either. [In fact, one of my students told one of his teachers that he didn't want to talk with me about his academic struggles because, "She's like 23 and what does she know about anything?"  I totally get what he's talking about, but I also hate that some students automatically don't want to open up to me because they think I'm inexperienced.  Maybe I need to start wearing more business suits to work to look older ;)]

As I've been wrestling with this idea of connection and seeking to build stronger, more trusting relationships with my students (which, my mentor has told me, inevitably will take time simply because I'm new to both the school and the profession), I've started thinking about my own experience in school with teachers and other adults who showed me that they cared.  And let me tell you, this has affected my daily work with students in immeasurable ways.

I think about one of my high school English teachers, Mrs. Norris.  When I got my schedule in the fall of my junior year and saw Mrs. Norris's name as the teacher for my College Writing class, I was absolutely thrilled to have her as a teacher.  I knew that she was highly regarded by students, and that she was a teacher who would push me to become a better writer.  As a smart student who always wanted to make the most of my high school experience, this was exactly what I was looking for in a teacher.  It wasn't until I actually sat down in her class and got to know her as a person that I really got to know how much of a gem she really was.  Mrs. Norris made it a point to connect with each and every one of her students.  She found out what we were involved in, what we liked to do outside of school, asked about our families, and wanted to make sure we all felt like we had a place to belong at school.  She had this parrot, Petey, who she brought to school with her most days.  Petey was super smart and talked a lot.  I distinctly remember one day sitting in Mrs. Norris's room when the bell rang, and he said, "Shit, I'm late for class!"  It was hilarious :)

I had a rough couple of years in high school in which I was dealing with some mental health issues, as well as three significant deaths that affected me a ton while I was in her classes.  Noticing that I was sad and unable to concentrate on my work, and without knowing details about what was going on in my life outside of school, I remember she pulled me out into the hallway one day to ask me what was going on.  I spilled to her about everything, crying embarrassingly in the hallway.  She was so understanding and empathetic.  She gave me a huge hug and said that any time I needed anything to let her know.  It was one of those small gestures (which she may not even remember) that made a huge impact on me.  I knew that she cared about me as a person, and that support and affirmation was exactly what I needed at the time.

Mrs. Norris still teaches at the high school I graduated from, and when I did my counseling internship, Mrs. Norris became a colleague.  Being able to work alongside of her and see just how much she cares about students and their learning was an incredible experience.  She fights so hard for kids in a way that I really didn't understand when I was her student.  I literally think about Mrs. Norris on a daily basis and the way that she connected with her students (including me), and it has absolutely shaped who I have become as a counselor.

Mrs. Norris and I are friends on Facebook and continue to keep in contact with each other fairly regularly.  We typically just "like" and comment on each other's photos and Facebook statuses, but every once in a while, we'll actually catch up with one another.  We talked last night for a while about how things were going at each of our respective schools.  I wanted to take the opportunity to tell her about what a difference she made in my life as a high school student, and now as a professional, and how I still think about her every single day in my work.  It's an amazing and humbling feeling to tell someone what kind of impact they've had on your life, and it's something that I've been trying to do much more of regularly.

I encourage all of you to reach out to those people in your lives who have made a difference to you.  It feels incredible to share with those around you, and occasionally being on the receiving end of that conversation, I can tell you it feels equally as meaningful and rewarding.

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