Remembering When A Teacher Had His Back

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Friday is the National Day of Listening, a chance to sit down with a loved one, turn on a tape recorder and ask that person about his or her life. NPR's Mike Pesca chose to talk with one of his middle school teachers about lessons they learned from each other.

You can find tips on how to record your conversation at nationaldayoflistening.org.

NPR's sports reporter Mike Pesca wasn't his middle school's most well-behaved student. Pesca was in the gifted program at his school in Oceanside, N.Y., where he may have been too smart for his own good.

Luckily for Pesca, former social studies teacher Kevin Sheehan believed in him.

"I always thought — I never questioned it — I always thought you had my back," Pesca tells Sheehan.

"Back then, I would say that school was enjoyment for you, and maybe not necessarily the classes," Sheehan recalls, laughing. "For a lot of teachers you were problematic, so part of my job was really to keep you from being thrown out of that school. That passion is kind of what drove you in school."

It was the same passion that drove Pesca to push the boundaries, he says. Sheehan remembers a problem-solving program in nearby Katonah, in which gifted students were given a problem to solve and then present in a skit. Pesca's skit: "The Top 10 Things We Hate About Katonah" — a sort of David Letterman-esque spoof.

"The guy running that program practically wanted to have you arrested," Sheehan says. "That night, I did have your back."

Sheehan is now assistant professor of education at Malloy College in New York, but he loved teaching middle school.

"In that middle school, in those years, it was a really fun place to be — which is what I think schools need to be," he says.

Sheehan also ran extra-curricular programs — including all the stuff that Pesca enjoyed, like Model Congress. Pesca says Sheehan was committed to students beyond the 45 minutes they were assigned to him in class.

Sheehan says it makes him angry when adults make up stories to explain students' behavior, judging them before they really know them. He says he enjoyed getting to know his kids, and learned from them almost as much as he taught.

"It isn't just that we come in and we have information to impart," Sheehan says. "It's a reciprocal thing."

Even now, a couple decades away from middle school, Pesca thinks often about Sheehan and what he taught him.

"I want to thank you," Pesca tells him. "You were as good a teacher as I can imagine ... You emphasized the virtues that I use to this day."

"You can only imagine how it feels to hear something like that," Sheehan responds. "I also want to thank you for being who you were ... I still tell Pesca stories. You may not know this, but sometimes your example is really helpful to an alternative-school kid when people are all down on him."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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