In honor of teacher appreciation week, I thought it only right to acknowledge the teacher that made the biggest difference in my life, Mrs. Sadak. While my fifth-grade year at Hong Kong International School (HKIS) was thirty-three years ago (damn!), the lessons learned in Mrs. Sadak’s class not only got me through a challenging time but instilled into my core a belief that I could do anything. Aside from my parents, growing up, I don’t remember an adult teaching me or encouraging me to dream big the way Mrs. Sadak did. She wasn’t just skilled at delivering academic knowledge in a way that an eleven-year-old could understand, she made learning exciting.
In a pressure-filled profession dominated by ongoing testing and performance evaluations, Mrs. Sadak still managed to take the time to get to know each and every one of her students personally. That’s not an easy task to do at any school, much less at an international school with a classroom blended of students from various countries and backgrounds. She knew her student’s hobbies, sibling’s names, birthdays, parent’s jobs, and even pets names with ease. Every Monday, as a new week began, Mrs. Sadak would start the day by sincerely asking each of us how our weekends went and what we did for fun. She wanted to know how our sports games, dance recitals, music performances, scouting retreats, beach trips, and family outings went. Good or bad, she always made us feel that the only thing that mattered in the big picture was that we tried our best, enjoyed what we did, never lied and learned from our mistakes. Simply put, she cared about her students and we knew it.
Labeling us her ‘Chickadees”, Mrs. Sadak found strengths in every one of us no matter our reading, math, science, writing, or English ability. She taught in a way that you didn’t want to fail her. I remember her emboldening us to write and write a lot (truth be told, it was in Mrs. Sadak’s class that I caught the writing bug). Whatever we were thinking or feeling, we needed to write those things down with the understanding that writing goals and dreams down started the process of taking action. She was adamant in reminding us to not let anything get in the way of reaching those goals. Big or small, long term or short term, we were convinced we could live our dreams because Mrs. Sadak said we could.
That’s not to say we were perfect, because we weren’t. Especially me. I remember a few times I didn’t do my homework and a few other times of having minor “misunderstandings” on the playground at recess with other kids. Thinking I was a dead man walking, Mrs. Sadak never lost her cool or yelled at me (or any of us) for my roguish ways. Instead, she gave the “I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed in your choices” speech. That killed me then, and it kills me now to think that I ever let her down. I almost wish she would have yelled, as that would have been easier to take. But even when in trouble, her calming and graceful demeanor let us all know everything would be alright. She forgave often and quickly, rarely having to deliver the same speech more than once. She always reminded us that tomorrow was a new day and that we needed to leave our bad deeds in our yesterdays. That advice still rings true to me today.
Mrs. Sadak never held grudges or played favorites (although my buddy and former classmate Andrew Q. and I still argue over which one of us, he or I, she liked more). She brought out the best in us collectively as a class and reminded us individually that no matter what our nationalities or backgrounds were, we all mattered equally. She pushed us to be better students, but more importantly, to be better people which is why it isn’t much of a shock to know that most of our class that year ended up in careers dedicated to helping others, specifically in the education field.
I was lucky enough to have had breakfast with Mrs. Sadak and her husband a few years back when I was in San Diego for a weekend. Although she left teaching shortly after moving back stateside, Mrs. Sadak never left the vocation of helping people as she changed careers, earned a Ph.D. and is a practicing Psychologist. She still had the same serenity and happiness she had as an educator and to no surprise, she was more excited to hear how and where life had taken me than talking about herself.
In short, great educators make it look easy. As someone who has been in education for a long time, I can assure you that there is nothing easy about teaching at any level. I’ve been fortunate to see and work with many incredibly talented and hardworking professionals who I remain in awe of. Dealing with parents, entitlement, political barriers, low pay, overcrowded classrooms, and the balancing of so many different personalities is something that all teachers sign up for unconditionally. The good ones, without even knowing it, teach their students how to learn, hope and dream. Mrs. Sadak did that for me but reminded us all that nothing, dreams included, comes without hard work and persistence.
On behalf of all of your students through the years, thank you, Mrs. Sadak. Your words and life lessons have never been forgotten.