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30 Days of Thanks: A life filled with teachers

30 Days of Thanks: TeachersI went through the gauntlet of third grade 18 years ago, but have yet to escape the happenings of a third grade classroom.

See, I’ve been lucky enough to be blessed with a mother, Deb, who has spent her entire adult life molding the lives of third graders (not to mention my grandma and several aunts and uncles who also spent their working lives in classrooms).

Day in and day out, through good days and bad, my mom heads into her classroom with a purpose. She views each day as an opportunity to leave a mark on a young mind. That’s something she won’t allow herself to take for granted because she knows how powerful her job is and can be.

That’s how she’s operated for well over 30 years.

But those who didn’t see her outside of the classroom setting didn’t know her normal day of teaching wasn’t over when she left the building each day. Not even close.

When she got home, even after the worst days, she spent time teaching me and my younger sister. There were nights around the kitchen table when my sister and I would work on homework while my mom graded papers or updated lesson plans. If we had questions, guess who was always there with an answer?

One of the coolest times of my life was when my reading teacher was my mom. I spent 45 minutes in her classroom each day. What I remember most poignantly was how she treated me exactly as she treated the other 20-25 kids in the class.

I was at school to learn. When I was home I could be the teacher’s pet.

I’ve always been grateful for those 45 minutes in her classroom. Seeing my mom do what she loves and do it well molded the way I approached school for the rest of my academic career.

She taught me discipline, respect and compassion. She taught me never to give up on something. She taught me I had what it takes to do whatever I wanted to in life, and that I should never settle for anything less – all things I carry forward to this day.

When I found out I was rejected from the University of Wisconsin-Madison as a senior in high school, I felt entirely dejected. Getting that note from the only school I ever wanted to attend could have taken a nasty toll on my confidence.

But without missing a beat, my mom was there to pick me up. She was there to teach me nothing comes easy in life, but everything is possible if you work hard and stay smart. After one year at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, I wound up at UW-Madison, where I graduated with a degree in Journalism and Mass Communication in 2009.

Guess who I said thanks to immediately after the ceremony was over?  

What’s also neat is I’m soon to be married to a first-grade teacher, who I’ve already seen impact the lives of many – both educationally and socially – in her two-and-a-half years in a classroom. Though we don’t have any children, I know for a fact there will be plenty of nights around the kitchen table where we all work on homework and educate one another, should that time come.

For that, I’m thankful the most influential teachers in my life were – and continue to be – at my disposal 24/7.

What teachers had the most affect on your life? 

30 Days of Thanks: Teachers are Heroes Among Us

30 Days of Thanks teachersUntil I was in college, school was easy for me. I didn’t have to work very hard to get good grades, and the only times I got detentions were for talking to my friends during class. So it came as a surprise when my two youngest kids started having trouble in school this year.

“Will had a bad day today,” said the email from my first-grade son’s teacher shortly after the school year began. I soon found out he was having a bad day nearly every day. He talked back to his teachers, refused to follow directions, cried when his team lost in gym class and walked around the room during music class. He’s always had a mind of his own, but this behavior was unexpected and unacceptable.

 I met with his teacher after school several times, and we came up with a simple reward system. I also took him to a therapist to see if he needs medication or another form of therapy. His teacher spoke with his therapist during her free time at school and completed a detailed questionnaire.

At the same time, my fourth-grader was struggling with problems of his own. He couldn’t make sense of what he was reading in his textbooks and was unable to work independently. He was also feeling sad and lonely because his best friend had switched to a new school this year. He doesn’t like to play sports, and all the other boys played kickball or football during recess, leaving him without any friends.

I contacted his teacher two weeks after school started to express my concerns. She told me that she and the other teachers in the intermediate unit were already aware of his struggles. They were spending extra time guiding Emmett through the directions for tests and giving him reminders to keep him on track. Together, we decided to start the lengthy process of having him evaluated for a learning disability. This meant documenting the issues and meeting with representatives from the school district several times before the school day started, plus keeping in touch with me on his progress. 

Our efforts have slowly started to pay off. Last week, they brought home their report cards, and Emmett has mostly B’s, a couple of A’s and only one C. He even started playing kickball at recess recently and has two new friends!

I credit his teacher for encouraging him and for pulling some of the boys aside and asking them to make him feel welcome.

Will is on track academically, and his behavior is starting to improve. He’s enjoying school more, and I haven’t had an email from his teacher telling me about a bad day in the past few weeks.

I am so grateful for the patience, kindness and support of my kids’ teachers during this very rough first quarter. Without the extra time they have spent, our kids might be headed down the wrong path. Instead, they’re back on track.

And that means everything to me.    

30 Days of Thanks: Strangers’ Kind Acts Still Shine Decades Later

30 Days of Thanks: Kindness of StrangersI was fresh out of college and heading to my first job in a community 30 miles away. With a tiny car – and even smaller bank account – I carefully weighed my limited options, finally deciding to rent a cheap trailer and complete the move in one haul.

Had I studied mechanical engineering rather than journalism, I might have realized a four-cylinder engine with 100,000-plus miles was not equipped to pull an overstuffed U-Haul on a hilly state thoroughfare. But the shoulder of Highway 23 was no place to be reevaluating my educational choices.

It was, however, the perfect spot to begin a crash course on the kindness of strangers.

During the next several hours:

  • An acquaintance of someone I’d literally just met helped me move some of my more valuable possessions to a secure location. (He didn’t seem the least bit irritated to be helping a naive young punk on a hot summer afternoon.)

  • A passing driver, noticing my plight, gave me a lift for a good chunk of my remaining journey.

  • A young man from France, traveling across the U.S. on a tandem bike, offered his empty back seat for the remainder of my course. (I still have a hard time believing this wasn’t a dream!)

None of these strangers had to help. In fact, I would have totally understood if they hadn’t. After all, they didn’t know me. There was no money in it for them. And they certainly had lives and plans of their own.

But they did help. Because they had compassion. Because they were able to put someone else’s needs in front of their own.

In a nutshell: Because they were kind.

While these voluntary efforts occurred more than two decades ago, I think of them often.

They’re a testament to the lasting power of a stranger’s kindness – and a reminder that I, too, am a stranger to others in need.

30 Days of Thanks on FacebookEditor's note: In the pursuit of our dreams, take time to thank the people who have helped you along the way. Take time during November to express your gratitude. For daily reminders during these 30 Days of Thanks, visit American Family Insurance on Facebook

Coming together to support our communities

United Way logoAttending the United Way of Dane County's annual celebration lunch on Nov. 21 reminded me of all that is right in our community. Hundreds of people came together to celebrate the success of this year's fund-raising campaign, and learn more about the causes and agencies the United Way supports.

Raising kids is hard. It's hard enough when you're in a home with two parents and decent jobs. It gets exponentially harder when you're a single parent, or living hand to mouth. The stories shared at the luncheon reinforced for me how the United Way supports the organizations trying to make it a little easier to help all children pursue their dreams.

At the luncheon, teen girls got on stage to talk about how they've used United Way-funded services. One had been sexually abused. Another was an immigrant from a war-torn country. Another needed extra tutoring. All had this in common: they have dreams -- to be teachers, to be counselors -- they're getting help through United Way services. And, they are succeeding.

I got choked up listening to their stories; feeling so grateful for the support our community provides the United Way agencies, through volunteering time, talent, and providing financial support.

The Dane County community raised $18.1 million for the United Way this year. It's an impressive amount for a community of 500,000 people.

At American Family, we're committed to protecting dreams. And that starts with inspiring dreamers. It’s a value our employees and agents live every day, and it's evident in our United Way support. I'm proud of our American Family agents and employees for leading the way this year in Dane County and across the country, contributing $1.2 million to United Way overall. And, more than 1,000 American Family employees donated time to the United Way Days of Caring.

As we approach Thanksgiving, I'm grateful for the support my colleagues and our community provide the United Way, and I'm so proud of all the young people who are working hard and taking advantage of the services from United Way agencies, so they are on a sold path to pursue their dreams.

30 Days of Thanks: The Power of Music

30 Days of Thanks - MusicIt all started when I was three or four.

That’s when the sounds of Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and other musical giants wafted through our home, providing the soundtrack for my formative years.

And ever since, I’ve been deeply, madly in love with music.

To say I’m grateful for music is an understatement. From The Clash’s “London Calling” to Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life,” music has profoundly shaped who I am and what I believe in. Live concerts by U2 and Bruce Springsteen have been transformative experiences that still fill my heart with passion and excitement when I think about them.

I’m thankful for music in countless other ways, as well.

It’s like a good friend that inspires me, motivates me or brings a smile to my face whenever I want. Songs like Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me” or Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” musically wrap their arms around my shoulders and make me feel good inside.

Music also is like a cultural passport that allows me to explore other parts of society or different countries around the world. When I listen to “The Best of Bollywood,” I close my eyes and imagine I’m walking down the streets of Kolkata.

Not only that, but music helps me achieve time travel. When I hear disco music, I’m instantly transported back in time to the 1970s.

And, you don’t have to be musically talented to enjoy music, or even perform it, as anyone who’s done karaoke can attest.

In mysterious and wonderful ways, music opens doors and builds bridges to other people. It has provided the perfect foundation for a number of friendships I’ve made through the years, offering common ground and shared experiences.  Music is a great equalizer, erasing socioeconomic differences, and it can even cut across political and religious lines. I’m especially thankful for that.

Music can give us hope, and inspire us to become better people. You simply can’t deny the transcendent, inspirational power of “We Shall Overcome.”

I’m deeply, eternally thankful for music. How about you?

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