To Chanie Howard, high school graduation felt a little bit like a breakup. Her friends weren’t the problem — she knew they’d all stay in touch. But she worried about losing her English teacher.
“I know it sounds super weird,” says Howard, now a 27-year-old PhD candidate based in Chicago. “But I had given her so much. She knew so much of my personal life … things I don’t usually tell other people.”
For years, Howard and her teacher met regularly after class to discuss a set of books very different from those typically assigned by the Georgia public school system, mostly by authors who, like Howard, identify as Asian American.
“One time I mentioned to her that I didn’t know what I was supposed to take from books like ‘The Great Gatsby’ and books by Hemingway. They didn’t really impact me much. So she suggested we start our own reading club.”
All along, Howard knew the relationship had a “terminal point”: She’d go off to college, her teacher would stay behind to share Amy Tan’s “The Joy Luck Club” with some other student who needed to read it. But when graduation came, Howard wasn’t ready. And so her former teacher, Nicole Smith, became her friend.
There are no studies that measure how many people keep in touch with their high school teachers. But especially since everyone started using Facebook, a social platform that, at least for a brief moment, appealed to both students and their teachers simultaneously, it’s probably more common than you think, says veteran teacher Rick Wormeli, who now consults on best practices for teachers across the country and has written several books on the subject. There are, of course, plenty of teachers that students can’t wait to never see again. But chances are, Wormeli says, every student has at least one they’ll miss.
“They think, ‘I want to stay connected to this person who believed in me … who saw things in me that I could not yet see,’” Wormeli says.
Rosaria Munda, 27-year-old author of the forthcoming trilogy “The Aurelian Cycle,” was 13 when she finished her first novel. Her friendship with her high school English teacher, Laureen Bonin, dates back to the day, sophomore year, when she asked her to read it.
“Looking back on it now, I can’t believe she actually read it,” says Munda. “It was like 50,000 words.”
She still remembers receiving an email from Bonin’s husband, the head of her high school English department, congratulating her on her work. Bonin had been so impressed by Munda’s book that she’d shared it with her whole family. After graduation, they kept in touch with frequent calls and visits. Munda, an aspiring author since taking Bonin’s class, often asked her former teacher to read her work. When she signed a book deal with Penguin for “The Aurelian Cycle,” seven years after graduating from high school, Bonin was one of the first people Munda called.
“I knew there were only going to be a handful of people who were as excited about this as I was,” said Munda.
“We cried,” said Bonin, who answered the call with another one of Munda’s former teachers. “We were all crying.”
Bonin says she has loved watching Munda’s career. As an English teacher, she says, it’s enormously gratifying to witness — and, to some extent, contribute to — a student’s professional success. “I take real pride and pleasure in continuing to be part of her life,” Bonin says.
But she gets more than just a “proud mom” feeling from their relationship, Bonin says: They’re friends. When Munda was a student, Bonin thought carefully about the types of personal information she was willing to share with her. But once she went to college, and particularly now, as she is about to become a published author, Munda feels more like a peer.
“She isn’t someone I necessarily think of as younger,” Bonin says. “Now we are both part of a professional world.”
Frank Riccobono, a 31-year-old computer programmer, also sought out a former teacher for professional help. When he first decided to study computer engineering, he didn’t know anyone in the industry. But he knew that his former high school public speaking coach, Charles Sloat, used to be an engineer for IBM. As a freshman in college, Riccobono started volunteering to judge speech tournaments for his high school on weekends. He’s been judging tournaments every few weeks for 13 years.
Sloat, he says, is a big part of the reason he keeps going back.
“I am one of two programmers at my company, and the senior of the two,” he says. “I don’t have someone in the immediate area who I can go to with ideas, but I do see [Sloat] at tournaments every couple of weeks.”
A teacher or former teacher can offer uniquely objective advice, Howard says. It’s different from a friend or a parent, she says, who is likely to have some kind of personal interest in nudging you toward one thing or the other. If they’re good at what they do, the teacher has also, at least at some point, thought deeply about what motivates you, Howard says. They’ve probably seen you grow and have some understanding of what makes that happen.
“Many students go back to former teachers, especially from grades that were particularly formative, when they’ve lost their way a bit. It’s a way to refuel,” Wormeli says. The experience might remind them of who they are, or what they should be striving for.
“You might be looking for belonging … or maybe even just proof that you are worth remembering,” he says.
Certain types of teachers, it seems, may be sought out more often than others. Almost everyone interviewed for this piece wanted to talk about a high school English teacher.
“I think that’s kind of an easy one to explain. When you are reading novels, reading anything, you can’t help but talk about life,” Bonin says. “Personal experience always finds its way into the discussion.”
It can crop up in writing, too, she says. Students might feel comfortable using an assigned essay or story as an outlet for issues or feelings they maybe, sort of, kind of want to share.
Then it’s up to the teacher to respond.