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Career Coach: Life Lessons

Pamela Kleibrink Thompson celebrates the teachers that made a difference.

Pamela Kleibrink


"The dream begins with a teacher who believes in you, who tugs and pushes and leads you to the next plateau, sometimes poking you with a sharp stick called "truth." -- Dan Rather, American journalist

Last Friday I attended the high school graduation of my niece Casey. One of the speakers posed two questions. Can you name the four actors who won Academy Awards last year? Can you name four teachers who made a difference in your life? Most people have trouble answering the first question but no trouble answering the second.

I thought about my own high school graduation and the teachers who made a difference in my life. At the time I thought they were only teaching me French, English and history. But when I think back I realize they taught me much more. 

In first grade the curriculum was to develop reading and writing skills. But my first grade teacher, Mrs. Salessas, also taught us about teamwork and consideration for others.

My fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Lugenbehl, taught us about California history, but also encouraged our imaginations and writing talents by placing a decorated box in the room where everyone could submit samples of their creative writing. Every Friday, all the poems and stories were read aloud to everyone in the class. I made sure I made a contribution to that box almost every week.

My fifth grade teacher, Mr. Newcomer, taught us about the Civil War and also about being civil to each other. I learned about the importance of standing up for what you believe. I was surprised to find some classmates had opinions widely different from mine.

In high school, I was fortunate to take French from Mademoiselle Emma Gilmetti for three years. As a senior my schedule did not allow me to take French during the time it was planned. But Mme. Gilmetti was determined to teach me so she allowed me to come to her class during her lunch/break time. She modeled true dedication and passion for her work. I still remember much of the French I took decades ago thanks to her insistence that we speak only French once we walked through her door.

When we studied World War II in Mr. Grande's history class, I made a comment about my father's experiences as a civilian in occupied Holland. He was a teenager during the war and there was little food available. My dad didn't talk about it much but I shared what I knew in the class discussion. Afterwards, I had band practice and Mr. Grande took his break period to watch us practice. When practice was over he approached me to thank me for sharing my dad's story in class. He gave me a new appreciation for my dad and he also taught me that each of us has a contribution to make to the world.

I was appalled when I received a B on my Mark Twain paper from my English teacher Mrs. Scambray. Was there no pleasing that teacher? She pointed out that the assignment was due the previous day and explained that was why I could only receive a B. I was too upset at the time to realize the powerful and important lesson she was teaching me -- the importance of meeting deadlines. I was too immature at the time to thank her for this valuable lesson. It's only reflecting back now that I realize she taught me much more than grammar and literature -- she taught me about commitment and responsibility.

And then there are those teachers who came afterwards -- in college and at work.

One of my first bosses terrorized all who worked for him. I vowed that when I became a supervisor I would never yell at anyone, nor bully people. I believed that you could get more out of employees by praise than vitriol and I still do.

Guy Johnson, my boss at Virgin Games, taught me that if you empower your employees and give them responsibility, they will live up to your expectations and surpass them. He respected the skills and talents of his staff. Given an opportunity to be a manager under his guidance, I had the courage to admit mistakes and the ability to correct them.

A synonym for graduation is commencement. One of the meanings of commencement is beginning or start. Truly high school graduation means saying goodbye to teachers and others who influenced you as a teen. It is a time of endings. But it is also a time of beginnings -- of venturing into the unknown. Graduation is a time of transition -- a time of making choices that can have a big impact on your life. It's time to begin a new phase of life.

I want to thank all the teachers who made a difference in my life, both at school, at work and at home. Whether they were friends or not, they had an impact on me.

Who are the teachers who made an impact in your life? Take the time to thank them for helping you grow and learn, whether you're a recent grad or not. Pamela Kleibrink Thompson is a recruiter, career coach, writer and speaker and wants to thank all the teachers who have encouraged her as well as all teachers who dedicate their lives to serving the needs of students. She hopes she has made a difference in some lives as well. You can reach Pamela at