by Khulia Pringle

I’m student teaching now which means my days are about learning to walk as a teacher, while also thinking about my practice, craft, and learnings. It’s natural for me to think about role models, those teachers who really made a difference in my life.

That’s easy. Jan Mandell was the one teacher who made a huge impact on my success. She was my theater teacher at St. Paul Central High School who made the difference between my staying school or dropping out. When she retired after decades in the district, students came to honor her. Each said a similar thing: “if it wasn’t for Jan, I would have dropped out.”

In her early days of teaching the administration would send the “troubled” kids to her. Eventually students were able to choose her acting class, or not. Many happily chose her as a teacher like I did for all four years of high school.

Those weren’t easy years for me. I was in foster homes – sometimes homeless – and had countless other problems. I trusted her because it was obvious that she respected me as an individual and as an artist. I knew she would never give up on me, which made me feel important and valued.

While Jan was everything I needed her to be as a teacher – caring, consistent, and creative – she is really the only teacher in all my 12 years of school that I remember fondly.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot and wondering why I can’t remember more than one teacher who made a difference in my life?

It’s not just me. I’ve asked friends and they have one special teacher too. They say it’s the 1st, 2nd or 3rd grade teacher. It makes me wonder what happened during all the other grades? Not all teachers can be Jan, but shouldn’t more be memorable for a positive impact?

I’m left believing that for many students effective teachers can be the exception to the rule, instead of the standard.

I wrote a blog post (“If You Can’t Teach my Back Children Admit It And Move On“) from the perspective of a black mother. It feels like I have to consider the full circle of life in a school, starting at a student, then a parent, and now as a teacher in an urban school.

This is what I know for sure, teaching hard. I constantly wonder if I am failing to reach students. I’m constantly aware of my students going through real life issues brought on by poverty, violence, drugs, mental illness. It is tough to develop smart and engaging ways to teach content. My classroom is packed. I can’t always rely on administration to help me solve problems.

The list of things that make teaching difficult could go on, but knowing how much of a difference Jan made in my life I prefer to feel powerful in the lives of my students. They need me to be fully present, supportive, and ready for anything life throws at us.

It breaks my heart that more children don’t experience a full 12 years of teachers like Jan. If nothing else, I’m committed to being that one teacher they remember as moving heaven and Earth for them.

For now, I must get back to prepping for tomorrow, another day where it’s my privilege to be a teacher.


  1. Great column. Wonderful tribute to a teacher. Hope you find enormous satisfaction in teaching. Thanks for believing that you can be “powerful in the lives of my students.” You are right. You can.

  2. I just woke up to this as I am working on a grant to continue this work in the community through the “Fostering Voice” work I am doing with young people – This is the legacy— we give back what we have gotten and it makes all the difference , I too had one teacher who believed in me- yes there should be more than one- I am so proud of you that you are stepping up and giving back- I want to say you were one of those students who was focused and committed and full of life I remember the dance you did to ” I was born on a river in a little tent… change is gonna come !! You were tenacious in your attitude and in your theatrical expression. You go on out there and share that with the young folks today they are starving for that kind of life and passion. You will make an difference in their life but most of off they will make a difference in youR!


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