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My dad is a former cop turned special education teacher in California. For the past 20 years, his daily beat has been Room 40, a well-worn portable classroom, lined with books and anti-bullying posters, and lit with the energy of his seventh and eighth grade students.

Watching him interact with “his kids,” the memories rewind and play back in my mind like old family VHS home videos. Back to long car rides when I was a child and he’d start the story as we pulled out of the driveway in our old fake wood decal-paneled 1980’s yellow Mazda, and it wouldn’t reach its thrilling conclusion until we’d arrived at our destination, no matter how long the drive.

My younger sister and I, tucked in the backseat battling over space, would always be the she-roes in those stories, and he’d invite our ideas about where the tale should take us. Then, he’d weave in our ideas effortlessly, while peppering in subtle themes of courage, kindness, and character.

Decades later, Mr. Haycock is engaging his students in the same way.

In Room 40, middle schoolers are cast as the heroes in their own stories, invited to be the powerful authors of their own narratives, and empathetic keepers of each other’s. Here, students are encouraged to tackle rigorous classwork head-on, to fully apply their imaginations to their learning, and to believe that they are so much more than any challenge documented in their Individual Education Plans. Here, they are told they have untold potential and gifts to share.

Where some talk about social-emotional learning as somehow entirely separate from school curriculum, my dad weaves it in seamlessly, seeing in his students the seeds of all of these qualities when they enter Room 40: Kindness. Grit. Resilience. Courage. And he invites students to nurture, grow, and reflect on these principles through reading, writing, and classroom discussion.

He also models these qualities in his classroom management. In the corner of the room is “Mr. Haycock’s Penalty Box,” a light-hearted and restorative approach to handling any behavior issues without writing referrals or sending kids out of class. His message to students always: You are wanted here.

Now preparing to retire, my career-changer father has invested his creativity, empathy, and instructional prowess into 20 years of students streaming through his classroom.

In the same way he did when his now-grown daughters were kids.

And isn’t that what we should celebrate this Teacher Appreciation Month — and always? This country needs teachers who invest in other people’s children as much as they do in their own, and who reinforce that they can surmount any challenge, no matter how scary.

On his classroom wall next to the dry erase board is a poster of John “The Duke” Wayne on horseback. The quote beneath: “Courage is being scared to death — but saddling up anyway.”

To the teachers like my father, who every day saddle up and encourage their students to ride to victory, thank you for all you do.

 

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