Alan Jaeger, Toms River Intermediate School East (retired)
I taught art for 38 years, and all of those years at the same exact school, Toms River Intermediate School East. I enjoyed it tremendously. I really loved interacting with the kids and cared about them deeply. I had been teaching for 15 years when my daughter Jenna died. She was only 14. When that happened, I knew that I needed to share my story with my students each year following to let them know I cared about them. I made it a habit each year to begin with each new group of kids by sharing my story. I told them I experienced things in my life. At that point, I shared my story of our daughter Jenna. I told them how she was about the same age as all of them when she was diagnosed with Leukemia, and that she died only a year or so later. It seemed difficult to share the story with them at times. I remember some of the kids in the class would be in tears when I told this story.
“But I shared it to make a point of saying, ‘Each one of you who walk into this classroom, I do not know what is going on in your lives. You could be experiencing very happy things, or you could be experiencing very sad things. As your teacher, I will try to show you that I care about you. If I see that you look sad or not yourself, I may walk up to you and ask what is going on… if anything is bothering you. You may choose not to talk about it, and that is fine. But if you need someone to talk to, I am here to listen.’
“I shared my story of my daughter Jenna with my students each year because though it was a hard thing to go through, I realized how I can use that experience to help others. That was a big deal for me. I always started the year talking to the kids about that, to make a meaningful connection with them. In a few cases, I saw good results. Such as a girl I had in 7th grade, when at the end of the next year when she was in 8th grade, she came into my classroom to sign her yearbook. She then turned and gave me a hug and said, ‘I wish I had a father like you.’ That brought me to tears. More recently one of my former students, almost 15 years after I had her as a student, contacted me on Facebook to say her mother died and said she didn’t know who to talk to, but thought she could talk to me.
“For me, it was all about making sure every kid in my classroom knew I cared about them as a person. They were not just a body in a room that I was trying to convey information to. I only saw the kids once or twice a week. I had only a little bit of time with them compared to all of the other influencers in their lives. But I made sure my time with them counted.”