Dene E. Gainey

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You Never Know

“Don’t let what you can’t do stop you from doing what you can do.” – John Wooden

You may never know the story behind the why, you may never truly understand why you do what you do, but deliberate acts can transform the lives of those you interact with. I have learned some valuable lessons about why it is important to "BE." To "BE" requires action and sometimes this action requires more than a focus on curriculum.

Scene One - Back to the Future

Back in 2004, at the beginning of my teaching career, it was clear to me that the classroom was exactly where I was supposed to be. I was passionate, motivated and driven to connect with my students in order to have maximum impact. I started out teaching third grade at a school here in Florida and doing all that I could to make learning fun and exciting for all students. I believed it then and I believe it now that 75% of my job is motivation and once I can be successful at that, everything else is easy. After that year of third grade, I had the opportunity to loop up to fifth, with a chance to teach the students again that I'd had in third grade. What a fortunate thing it was as they already knew me (kids and parents) and I was overjoyed with the idea of teaching these phenomenal students again.

One student in particular, was facing some behavioral challenges which began to impact his academics and I saw quickly that the path he was headed down was not a great one for him, particularly only being a fifth grader. In essence I thought that I could help him and needed to before he left for middle school. So, as a means to positively reinforce, encourage and support him, I'd formed a checks and balances system with him, occasionally having him eat lunch with me, just so he knew that someone cared about him. Now he has a loving and supportive family, but sometimes that "outsider" can have much more of an impact, as I have experienced on numerous occasions.

It was at that time, that the bond formed and he would feel comfortable coming to me when he had problems or challenges, despite what they were. I'd developed relationship with his family as well and after some time, made a plan to come over and help with homework and character building, as a positive influence. The relationship grew stronger to the point where I was essentially welcome to come around at any time and the uncle/nephew idea took shape. He needed me and I knew how to help him and though the challenges were not solved overnight, he was very receptive to the insights I had and respected me, not only as a teacher, but now as his uncle. Years went by, and communication was not as consistent, but we did manage to keep in contact. Life challenged him in ways that he may not have been prepared for, but the benefits of what happened in his 5th grade year were far-reaching. Drawing on that, I made a point to reach out and he did the same, and though life has not always dealt him a good hand, he is alive, healthy, and living. He made the statement recently: "If it wasn't for you being there, I would have been locked up or dead." Now when you hear that from someone, surely you can't keep a straight face. After all I'd been through with him, I was emotional. It was the bold-faced truth that impact and influence can go a long way and those potential events were the last thing I would want to happen to him. He is now 22 and I make it a point to go see him and talk to him as much as possible, but imagine if I had not taken the time?

"Every child you encounter is a divine appointment."   — Wess Stafford, President Emeritus of Compassion International

Scene Two - This Year

Another interesting encounter took me by surprise. More recently than the first, I learned that this next student had challenges with confidence and really put himself in a corner because because of how different he'd perceived himself to be from others. Kids face very real challenges today and just imagine if they had no one to turn to. Having recently had conversations with his mom, she communicated to me that his confidence has tremendously increased on account of him being able to interact and glean from me. I am completely humbled by the idea and even more to the point of how real this conversation was as she went for the tissue box, because she couldn't fight the tears that bombarded her eyes. I had to fight my eyes so they wouldn't participate, but I couldn't help but be moved by the idea that this year has been so transforming for this student, and we aren't even at the halfway point yet.

"Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see."   — John F. Kennedy, 35th President of the United States

Scene Three - This Year #2

Another mind-blowing example of impact and influence and the benefits of connecting with students is life in transition. It is never an easy thing to go through transition, and I have learned that it is in transition that we make most of our mistakes, taken by the discomfort and perhaps wavering emotions. I recently learned, again in conversation with a parent," that if it had not been for me, then and I quote "I don't know what my child would have done." Moving from one school to another school, though beneficial to the child in the long run, can be challenging, with having to leave old friends, acclimate to a new school, new teachers and a new set of expectations. What I did not know is the role that I was playing in simply connecting with students, attempting to make learning fun and being who I am. I found out that the student had been going to counseling since he'd started at our school because he came to his mom and said "I am depressed." Now, things have changed. He is a happy child and his mom said, he loves my class. Again the tissue box being less than five feet away was definitely beneficial and while she apologized, I said no I completely understand. Just imagine for a moment that seeking to develop a connection and deliberately going after impact, can transform a life. It is worth it!!!!


The first group of students I'd ever taught are now in college and/or working part-time or full-time jobs and living life. Many I still make it a point to keep in contact with and I take every opportunity to interact with them, check on them and offer support or advice wherever I can in this tangled web of life we weave. Why? Well I realize that life can be quite challenging and I further understand how life can be made more livable when you are surrounded by those who support you and when you actually feel that support. In the case of scene one, mentioned above, this kid is my nephew and I am his "unk"  as he so eloquently puts it. There is not one thing, person or idea that has the power to cause either one of us to feel differently about it. To this day, outside of the color of our skin (and maybe not even then, you would never know that the cultivated relationship was not biological. In fact, his entire family knows who I am and have frequently offered gratitude for the strides made to be there for him.

These are only three examples of stories I have shared about the benefits of connection with students and how what we do can have long-lasting impacts. I'd shared with one of the parents above about the number of things I do or am involved in and at first, she questioned if I'd had a life. I immediately responded to her and said I know that kids need advocates and opportunities to learn and explore and have experiences and I believe that if teachers like me didn't take the time, make the time and use the time we have to provide opportunities for students, then we limit their ability to grow and develop. What I mean is, we increase that ability when we avail ourselves to them. She was blown away by my response. She asked if I lived at school. :) It was funny but at the same time, a perfect opportunity to express the need for dynamic and involved teachers to act deliberately to impact student "years," but really student "lives." You never know.img_0154