Teaching is about caring, making a difference

Published 12:00 am Saturday, August 23, 2014

I first met Teri Mills during a mother-daughter banquet at Dayspring Community Church in China Grove. The program director for the event, Pam Broome, had invited me a few months earlier to be the guest speaker.
Although I had never been to the church, I knew the general vicinity on Lentz Road, not too far from U.S. 29. Turning into the long driveway with trees lining the right side, I saw the church in the distance. Impressed with the beauty of the building and grounds, including a secluded nook in back with benches and flowers, I was even more impressed after going inside. Opening the door to the fellowship building, I immediately saw Pam and giving a hug and hello, expressed how beautiful her church was. Happy to hear that, she said renovations had recently been made, with plans for even more.
Showing me where to set up, Pam then helped me with my display, explaining my presentation would be after the meal. Excited preparations were coming together, so she left to take care of last-minute details. I then began making final adjustments to the display, looking up to see a mother and daughter browsing. Introducing myself, I learned from Teri Mills that her daughter, Ellie, was familiar with my books having seen them at Millbridge Elementary School. With only a few minutes to chat before the event, I was happy they invited me to sit at their table.
After announcements, Pam said it was time for the blessing. At the conclusion, each table took turns standing in line to be served. With the line moving fast, we were soon enjoying a nice meal of quiche, fruit, bread and dessert. Enjoying not only a delicious meal, but conversation with others at our table, my ears perked up when Teri mentioned her husband needed a passport. Quietly listening, I soon learned Teri and her husband, Adrian, were teachers.
Of course, I was really interested by now and asked Teri why her husband needed a passport. Surprised to learn he was from Australia, I was even more surprised to learn they met at Knox Middle School in 2003 when Adrian began teaching science. By then, Teri had been teaching for a year. She had been thinking about leaving and going home to Indiana. She’s glad she didn’t.
At the time Adrian became a teacher at Knox, he had already been teaching in Australia for several years. He has wanted to travel when a friend said he had a great experience with the teacher exchange program. After visiting International Faculty, Adrian decided to give it a try.
Although just friends at first, six months later Adrian and Teri were dating. Two years later, a difficult time came when Adrian had to return to his hometown of Melbourne, Australia, fulfilling his agreement with the exchange program. By now in love, the only way to get married was for Adrian to apply for a Residency Visa in the United States. Conditions meant marriage within 90 days of acceptance. Family and friends were more than willing to help.
The wedding took place August 5, 2006 at Zoar United Church of Christ in Teri’s hometown of Evansville, Indiana. A small traditional wedding with family and friends, a special moment was the lighting of the unity candle, joining two families from different parts of the world. Excited to be pronounced husband and wife, it was a touching moment when friends and family gave them horseshoes tied with ribbons as they walked down the aisle. Part of a traditional Australian wedding, this gesture symbolizes luck. Teri’s mom, Jenny Schmuck, suggested this as a way to include both families in the celebration and Teri’s happy she did.
Although I met Teri at the mother-daughter banquet in May, I didn’t meet Adrian until a few months later at their home near Patterson Farm. Intrigued with how they met, I was also intrigued with what brought each of them to North Carolina.
Teri explained she was a senior at Indiana State University when she applied for a teaching position in Rowan County during a job fair on campus. Since Indiana State has a reputation for producing strong educators, it’s not unusual for representatives from all over the United States to attend job fairs there searching for teachers. Deciding not to pursue opportunities in N.C. after graduation, Teri took a job closer home as an In School Suspension supervisor.
Calling it luck or destiny, for whatever reason, the next year Teri felt she should come to N.C. Picking up the phone one afternoon just before school started, she called the principal of Knox at the time, Tony Helms, asking if he had an opening. Having her resumé on file from the previous year, he said he had an opening in social studies, Teri’s field.
The next year is when Adrian began teaching at Knox. Having traveled to the west coast of the United States ten years earlier for a basketball tour, he was somewhat familiar with the country and customs. Wanting to visit the east coast this time, he put in his request. Falling in love with N.C., the students and life as a teacher, Adrian felt at home almost immediately. Part of that, of course, was Teri.
Adrian and Teri are both now teachers at China Grove Middle School. Although Teri is still teaching social studies, Adrian changed from science to health and physical education. He loves teaching P.E. and thinks besides marrying Teri and having their little girl, Ellie, that’s the best thing he’s ever done. Knowing her husband well, Teri believes he loves P.E. because he loves the structured chaos and noise of a gym.
With school just around the corner, I asked Teri and Adrian what advice they have for new teachers. Both say to communicate and care about their students. In addition, Teri said, “You may have the only positive words a child hears in a day or a week. That doesn’t mean not to hold a student accountable, it just means to care in a way they know you care. I became a middle school teacher because I was one of those kids who needed a hug and was lucky I had a great teacher who helped me find myself. Now I want to do that for my students.”
Asking what the biggest change they’ve seen in ten years as teachers is, Adrian said, “Attitude.” Pausing for a minute, he then said, “It’s hard to put into words, but as a P.E. teacher, having students all three years, I know what they looked like in 6th grade and what they look like in 8th. Some students look so different there’s no doubt in my mind something happened to change them. It’s as if the light leaves their eyes. Feeling like no one cares about them, they have a hard time caring about school or grades”
Agreeing, Teri said, “We see that more and more and for whatever reason it seems to be especially true with girls. Sometimes it’s because they have no one to parent them and no stability. Other times it’s because a tragic event happened in their lives. It’s really sad, but I find when I take the time to get to know them, building a relationship, they feel I care and will try harder.”
Even good teachers get burned out from time to time and that almost happened to Teri this past year. A difficult year on so many levels, she admits her light almost went out, but after rest, encouragement and inspiring workshops this summer, a faint flicker began to ignite, gradually bringing that light back full and bright.
Other contributing factors to that renewed spirit were seeing past students who shared how much she inspired them. Teri was particularly amazed by a student from twelve years ago who recognized her. The student grinned, saying, “I always remember my good teachers.”
Teri said, “That experience helped me remember why I teach and that’s all it took. My light’s bright again and I’m ready to go.”
I could tell she meant it, too, because she was glowing from ear to ear.
If you’re a teacher, hopefully, this story has inspired you. As Teri and Adrian discovered, teaching is not about perfection, but about caring and making a difference. While it’s true students flourish when they know teachers care, teachers also flourish when they know someone cares. This year on days that are tough, teachers, hold on to the knowledge there are people in the community who appreciate all you do for children.
Now, there’s nothing left to say, except, “Have a great year!!”

Dicy McCullough’s children’s books are at local bookstores, Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble. Follow her blog www.dicymcculloughbooks.com/blog or contact her at 704-278-4377.