The Power of a Teacher – How the words of two teachers saved a man’s life
January 16th, 2018
Most educators strive to make a difference in the lives of their students. As time goes on, you might start to wonder if you actually are making a difference. How do you affect your students? What impact do you have on them?
To answer that question, consider the real-life story of Adam Saenz. Adam is a best-selling author and psychologist who has worked in the education field for a decade. At a TEDx event, Adam told his story.
If you’re an educator, his story might change your entire outlook on teaching.
“What are you doing here?”
As a child, Adam, who then went by “Lou”, was a trouble-maker. Once, when his mother had to pick him up after he was arrested, she angrily asked him, “What are you doing here?”
In his head, Adam thought, “What an absolutely stupid question to ask me. Are you kidding me? ‘What am I doing here?’ I know who I am. I’m Lou Saenz. It’s my job to make your life hell. I’m never going to learn. I can’t make it through a single day. ‘What am I doing here?’ This is who I am, this is where I belong, this is what I do.”
Adam had resigned himself to a life of making trouble for himself and everyone around him.
By 19-years-old, he was working as a dishwasher and sleeping on the living room floor of a friend’s one-bedrooom apartment. He was deep into depression and drug use.
“I remember thinking, like, ‘Are you kidding me? I’m 19-years-old, I’m working as a dishwasher, I’m using drugs, and I’ve got another 60 years of this to look forward to? What’s the point?’”
Then one night, everything changed.
“Those words absolutely haunted me.”
One night, after a hard day at work, Adam came home and decided to write in his journal. When he pulled out the box containing his journal, Adam found letters from two teachers he had his senior year in high school.
One of the letters said, in part: “You’re extremely talented and intelligent, but most importantly, you have a good heart… I know you will use your talents to help your fellow man, and that’s the most satisfying life a person can have.”
The other letter contained these words: “You have insight, sensitivity, intelligence and maturity beyond your tender years. Keep being you. You’re a special person.”
Adam says, “Those words absolutely haunted me.”
Adam thought he knew who he was. “I’m a 19-year-old version of that sixth-grade kid that’s never going to make it through a single day, whose job it is to make your life hell, who’s never going to learn. I’m using drugs, I’m depressed out of my mind, I’m working as a dishwasher. I have no future. I know who I am.”
But these two teachers disagreed with him.
“So, back and forth I went, back and forth. Who’s right about me? Who’s right about me?”
‘They could see something in me that I couldn’t see in myself.’
Finally he decided, “I need to put this theory to the test. I need to figure out who I am. I know what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna sign up for a college course.”
He took a course in English and to his surprise, he passed!
He decided to take another course, then another course, and then another. Before the age of 27, Adam graduated with a degree in English.
“They were right about me. [They] could see something in me that I couldn’t see in myself.”
He realized, “‘You know what? They were right about me. Mrs. McRoberts and Mrs. Exley [his high school teachers] could see something in me that I couldn’t see in myself.’”
He eventually got a master’s degree and then applied for a PhD at Texas A&M. “And then,” he says, “the whole thing came full circle.”
“I realized, ‘Adam, you can write your own ticket. You are qualified to do what you love to do.’ And I realized, in that moment, I wouldn’t have those options if I didn’t have a PhD in psychology, and I never would have had the courage to apply for a PhD if I hadn’t finished my master’s degree, and I never could have applied for a master’s degree if I hadn’t first finished my undergraduate degree, and you know what? I know that I never would have stepped out for that first degree had educators not spoken truth into my life about who I am and my identity.”
But the power of a teacher extends even further.
“That is the power of a teacher.”
Adam and his wife eventually adopted a little girl named Lauren. Adam described her situation: “She had been in the custody of protective services for two years already in her young life. She had experienced things that no human being should ever have to experience, let alone a little girl.”
Adam knew where she came from because he came from the same place. And because of the change he had caused in his life, he and his wife decided to take in a child with the same challenges and help her see her true value, just like those teachers had done for him.
Adam says, “The reason I share my daughter as a case study is just to underscore the generational power that educators have in the classroom.
“When we as educators make that connection with those students, we change every heartbeat they have to the grave.”
Those teachers didn’t just touch Adam’s life. They touched his daughter’s life as well. And who knows how the impact their words had on Adam will affect the life of his grandchildren?
“That is the power of an educator,” says Adam. “That is the power of a teacher.”
This is a summary of Adam Saenz’s talk from TEDxYale in 2015. Watch the full 18-minute talk by Adam in the video below.