The gifts of a teacher


photograph by Jason Dail

by Settle Monroe

I knew the summer before my junior year at Broughton High School that it would be a big year. All of the rising juniors knew it was important. School counselors pressed into us how we needed to concentrate on our grades and course selection this year more than ever, as college applications loomed. Equally important to me, our women’s basketball program was finally turning around. With a couple of new guards moving up from the JV team, I thought we had a good shot at a conference title. I had my first real boyfriend and a new driver’s license in my wallet. It was going to be a big year.

I could not have known that some of the most important things I would take away from my junior year would be found in my English class.

I registered for AP English with Ms. Nichols with a healthy dose of nerves and excitement. English and Language Arts had always been my favorite courses, but the buzz in the hallways of Broughton High School was that her English class was different. My friend’s older brother, a bright and accomplished student, told me that I would never work so hard in a class as in this one. He also told me that I would never learn so much in my life. Today, 15 years after taking that class, I know that he was right.

When Ms. Nichols returned my first written assignment, an analysis of Sylvia Plath’s poem Mirror, my paper was completely covered in her handwriting. But it was not just her corrections and edits that filled the margins. She had also written thoughtful questions and long, detailed comments. I imagined that it had taken her just as long to grade my paper as it had for me to write it. And yet, somehow I didn’t feel deflated by all of her markings. Instead, I felt as if I had just had a meaningful conversation with my teacher. And I wanted to write again and write more. I wanted to have more conversations with this teacher.

Lately, I have been thinking about my written dialogues with her on the edges and margins of my assignments. What was it that made her impact so profound?  I decided to sit down with her to figure it out. And to have what I always loved to have with her – a conversation.

Over afternoon tea, we caught up on each other’s lives – our families, our work and the books on our nightstands. I was surprised to learn that Babs Nichols never set out to be a teacher. Though she is now in her 30th year of teaching and has distinguished herself as one of the county’s great educators, earning, among other awards, the Richard Jewell Award for Excellence in Teaching and the Richard Jenrette Teaching Chair, she actually grew up with dreams of becoming a lawyer. Nichols headed to UNC Chapel Hill to major in English in order to prepare for law school. It was actually her sister who opened her up to the idea of pursuing teaching as a career.

“I remember it so clearly,” says Nichols. “My sister looked at me and said, ‘Oh come on. You know that you need to be a teacher. The world needs more good teachers than it does good lawyers.’ ” Today, thousands of former students and many other parents and colleagues are thankful that she followed her sister’s advice.

Ms. Nichols did more than teach us how to write. She also taught us how to think. She taught us that each of us has something valuable to offer. She taught us to believe in ourselves. She also taught us the lasting value of a teacher.

Her engagement and positivity have had an impact far beyond her classroom. “Despite public rhetoric, public schools are not ‘failing,’ ” Nichols wrote in an article for Midtown Raleigh News that was reprinted by The Huffington Post in January 2014. “In fact, in most ways they are succeeding … We challenge and reach most of the students who walk in our doors. That happens every day because most teachers and administrators I know are smart and motivated and eager.”

Her own intelligence and motivation have made her a teacher with an intuitive, holistic understanding of what it means to educate. For the students who are falling behind academically, Nichols is determined to understand the whole story. “Let’s take a step back and see why they are really failing. What is going on behind the grade?”  She often finds that students are facing complex and difficult life situations that run far deeper than academic deficiencies.

She has always been focused on her students as people. She is just as likely to be cheering from the sidelines of a sporting event as from behind her desk in the classroom. Perhaps this is why we all connect with her so deeply. She makes us feel like our lives outside of English matter to her just as much as our lives inside the classroom.

Katherine White, a former student of Nichols, and now an assistant principal at Broughton High School, says Nichols’ focus on students has impacted the entire Broughton community. “There is always noise in education,” she says. “Ms. Nichols has taught me that you can weather the noise if you focus on what matters — students. Her commitment, positivity and care have taught me that all of our students are bright and funny and have life experiences to share.”

Nichols finds creative ways to connect with and engage her students. I won’t forget her playing Alanis Morrisette’s 1995 song Ironic to teach us about the literary tool of irony. Last year, she showed her class Ashton Kutcher’s speech from the 2013 Teen Choice Awards to teach how to craft an argument. Once the students are connected to the lesson, she says, “You can then move to harder, more complex material like Martin Luther King and Henry David Thoreau. But you start with what they know.”

Nichols was always a part of the discussions that we had as a class, but she was never the center of them. This may be what I remember most about her class, how I always felt as though I was a valued member of the group. I felt that my voice mattered in the conversation. She helped us discover our voices in class so that we could find our voices as writers.

“My goal for my students,” she says today, “is that they will leave my class saying, ‘I am a better writer because I was here.’ ”  She recognizes that most of her students will not grow up discussing and analyzing literature. But they will need to be able to write. That’s what motivates her to spend late nights and many Saturday mornings at home laboring over all of those edits that flow like conversations on her students’ papers. It is what motivates her to constantly improve lesson plans and tests. It is what has kept her pouring into students for 30 years.

“Ms. Nichols taught me the value of critical thinking, mature and impacting writing skills, expressive thoughts and communication,” says Elizabeth Merritt, vice president at Raleigh’s Cherokee Investment Partners. Merritt attributes her ability to think critically and write logically to her junior AP English class with Nichols.

Many former students share a similar testimony. That first boyfriend of mine, also a student of Nichols, later became my husband. It was no surprise to anyone who knew us that Nichols was at the top of our wedding guest list. And years later, after Jeff completed law school, a couple of weeks before the North Carolina State Bar Exam, a letter from Nichols arrived in the mail. It was a letter of encouragement, a letter to remind him that he was a strong writer and that he had the tools he needed to pass the exam. I saw his confidence rise as he read it.

I now teach writing to small groups of middle-school students. I rarely plan a lesson or lead a class without thinking about Nichols, without wondering how I can inch closer to becoming a teacher who reaches students like my treasured high school English teacher. She taught me how to write. More importantly, she taught me to love writing. It has been a long time since I sat in her classroom, but as I lead my own writing lessons, I find that Nichols continues to teach me today.

While I don’t remember much about my grades my junior year at Broughton, or even how far our basketball team made it in the conference tournament, it was certainly a big year. What I do remember about that year is meeting a teacher who stepped into my life and became a part of it. I remember a teacher who was just as invested in my growth as a person as she was invested in my growth as a writer. I remember finding my voice and the skills needed to continue to develop it.

It is hard to pin down the lasting impacts of a good teacher. The gifts that they give us are often immeasurable and intangible. Teachers like Ms. Nichols, who connect with students, who become invested in their lives, who work tirelessly to give the academic support that students need, do far more than teach us a subject in school. They become a part of how we think and how we see the world. They become a part of who we are.