How Teachers Save Lives: One Educator's Story

Welcome to our Learning Moments series, where educators, coaches, and experts share their stories. Read HMH President and CEO Jack Lynch's first post in the series here. (Photo: Rinaia, a student featured in the video below, with her READ 180 intervention teacher.)

Every year of my teaching career, my school district would host one of those back-to-school, corral-every-teacher-in-one-space, stand-up-if you’re-retiring convocations. I looked forward to attending, more for the social aspect of catching up with the entire crew after the summer than for the typical review of district goals and comprehensive improvement plan. One year, however, both the message and the superintendent were new, and that was a convocation that would shift mindsets for good.

“Turn to your neighbors and ask them what they do for a living,” belted the voice from the stage.  Murmuring ensued. “That’s right. You heard me. Go ahead and ask them.” 

In a room packed to the rafters with educators, I hoped she wasn’t looking for variety. Nearly everyone complied and shared the answers you would have expected: I teach science, I teach students, I prepare the youth of America for college and career opportunities, I teach kindergarten (God bless you), etc. 

“How many of you answered that you’re in the business of saving lives?” asked that same powerful voice, as she confidently crossed the stage in her sassy white suit bringing with her a hush with the raise of her hand. Not a hand went in the air. She had us now.

'In the Business of Saving Lives'

“Repeat after me: I’m in the business of saving lives.” And we did. “One more time: I’m in the business of saving lives.”

I’ll admit that the first time it came out of my mouth, it sounded more like a question.

“Again,” she prompted, understanding that we needed to hear ourselves multiple times in order to believe ourselves.

“I’m in the business of saving lives,” I stated. Now that sounded much more convincing, and for the rest of the hour that our convocation speaker traversed the stage, I was sure that everyone else, except maybe a retiree or two, was contemplating the power and weight of that statement.

I never forgot that day or the message I learned but also never had the courage to use that reply when anyone asked me what I did for a living. Not too many convocations later, I found myself out of the classroom and in the business world, managing accounts and providing job-embedded coaching in service to teachers and students in READ 180 and System 44 classrooms.

Dontae's Story: A Learning Moment

Along the way, I met a young man, a high school junior, a non-reader—Dontae—in a special education classroom. As I provided biweekly support for Dontae’s teacher, I also found myself taking a particular interest in Dontae. He attacked the System 44 software like a man on a mission, pushing and persevering through each personalized lesson, asking questions and seeking assistance from whomever was available to help.  

Once, just before class ended, Dontae reached over and tapped me on the shoulder. “Hey, when are you comin’ back?” he asked.

“In a couple of weeks, Dontae. What can I do for you?”

Dontae reached out and grabbed his classmate Shantal’s hand, pulling her in to our conversation. “He’s mine,” he said, gently patting Shantal’s growing belly, “and Shantal and me decided there won’t be any more special ed for our family. Miss, we gotta get in READ 180.”

Ah, now it all made sense—all of the hard work, the near desperation to complete the System 44 software. Dontae knew they were running out of time. They needed to learn to read, both for their sake and to provide a future for their son. 

Before I knew the words were coming out of my mouth, I spewed, “I can help with getting you ready for READ 180, but it’s going to take continued hard work and focus from both of you. And I’ll make you a deal . . . for every System 44 Series you complete, I’ll bring you a children’s book for your son’s library.  We’ll learn to read that book together, and then you two can practice reading it to each other and to Dontae Jr. when you’re together.”   

The looks on their faces let me know this was a plan they could get behind—one they could see working. 

The bell rang, signaling the end to class and to our conversation. Reaching down to grab his backpack, Dontae whispered, “Thank you,” and quickly wiped the back of this hand across his eyes. “I won’t let you down.”

A Shift to a Learning Mindset

I may never know exactly what caused Dontae’s learning mindset shift as a high school junior: the adaptive nature of the software, the differentiated small-group lessons with his teacher, the access to books he was able to read. In my work with HMH as The Learning Company, what I do know is that when these elements are woven together with other research-based practices to create intervention programs, something magical happens, and it doesn’t really matter which element “flips the switch” for the lightbulb moment.  

What matters is the switch flips and someone notices. Take a look at the video below featuring a student Rinaia. This is another example of what inspiring learning moments are all about. Like Dontae, Rinaia used READ 180 as part of her reading intervention and felt a sense of pride in her improvement. 

Supporting teachers to recognize these types of moments will continue to cultivate a growth mindset in students and encourage them to take a more active role in their learning, allowing both teachers and students see hope where it may not have existed before. That's one of our core missions as The Learning Company.

When I think back now on that fateful convocation message about how teachers "save lives," it’s obvious to me why I’ve never had the courage to use the phrase. It was never about me doing the saving. The real work was in providing the means to empower students, like Dontae, to save themselves.