A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives, said Jackie Robinson, who broke the color line in Major League Baseball. For him, impact looked like playing baseball where he wasn’t wanted, and just like the record-setting ballplayer, we have a choice to make in how we want our impact to be made.
Perhaps she hasn’t broken any records, but Susan Fuller Elder certainly has made an impact that has far-reaching implications, and our school district and our community are extremely blessed to have her do so.
Just over a decade ago, Mrs. Elder walked away from a lucrative, exciting career as a journalist in Atlanta. Her job was to report breaking news focused on social issues and injustices. Part of compiling her stories was interviewing criminal suspects and convicted felons. Her journalistic reports were challenging, scary and troublesome for this impact-maker, but she believed her impact on the world consisted of spreading awareness in order to urge sweeping social changes. However, repeated interviews with law-breakers taught her an important lesson about impact: Sometimes, we’re a tad too late.
Time and time again, Mrs. Elder heard the same foundational story in the lives of these suspects – halted educations at fifth or sixth grade. A shift in her mindset occurred, and she made a crucial pivot in the steps she was taking to make a mark in this world. According to Mrs. Elder, a better way to change the world is to offer education to every child, because the trend of young people heading away from school and into a jail cell is much too great to reverse without starting within the classroom at an early age.
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And so, she left her post as a journalist to become a teacher, more specifically, an elementary special education teacher. Now, the students at Johnson Elementary School are reaping the benefit of her career change, I mean, her impact change. She sheds light on the potential of some of our most under-served, yet deserving children, whole-heartedly believing that every single child can learn and deserves a fighting chance at a quality education, and with the same fervor demonstrated in her reporting, she teaches every child with the hope that the pipeline toward prison is forever closed.
Hundreds of students walk into and then out of a classroom during a teacher’s career. Teachers have 180 days to grab a soul in crisis and present an education or 10 months to take a charred individual and offer social success. That’s the kind of impact teachers make when they forsake the opportunity for bulging bank accounts or byline notoriety.
Mrs. Elder tells the story of a powerful lesson she learned in her preparation to become an impactful teacher, a lesson that supports her choice to create change from the classroom. When she was teaching English as a second language in Nagasaki, Japan, her director explained how the word “crisis” was written in Japanese. Borrowed from the Chinese language, two characters that form the word mean “danger” and “opportunity.” Her director’s lesson was this: The character of an impact-maker is contingent upon which word he or she chooses to focus on in the midst of crisis – danger or opportunity. For many of our educators just like Mrs. Elder, the choice is obvious.
When so many of our children are making choices that will lead them to the figurative prison cell of depression, isolation, apathy or failure, or to the literal prison cell of incarceration, the hopeful chance to redirect a child is that much more vital to our city’s overall prosperity and longevity. That’s why we need the impact-makers we call Teachers. Teachers who, like Mrs. Elder, see a desperate need and will hurdle any obstacle to meet that need.
Yes, we are a blessed people because of teachers like Susan Fuller Elder. Thank you, impact makers.
Sheryl Green is a secondary educator in Columbus. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.