what makes an extraordinary teacher?

Katy Roberts Stephanie Klein Rick Wilson

“Writing Your Autobiography” is an SWS course I took with Katy Roberts once upon my time at Wheatley. It was 1993, my senior year, and along with the stress of college applications and SATs, I was going through a break-up. Except this time, instead of a broken heart over a boy, I was learning the pains of growing apart from a friend. In a word: drama. In two words: girl drama, which is way worse. 

Each week we were assigned the task of handing in a chapter of our lives, painting a picture of our most defining moments. I struggled with which stories to write. I was seventeen years old. What did I have worthy of telling? Apparently, quite a lot (MOOSE, my second memoir is all about my life as an adolescent).

“Just be honest,” Katy told me when I approached her in a whine, fretting over what to include. That night I went home and wrote about the schism with my best friend. It was the first time I realized the power writing had, especially writing honestly.

“Cathartic, wasn’t it?”  Katy asked when she handed me back my paper. “I knew you’d write about that eventually,” she said. She knew, before I did, how much the split bothered me, and she knew my writing about it would help. 

In the following weeks, I handed in more chapters of my life, exploring my fears of becoming my mother, disappointing my father, and my own hopes for the future.

“I’m scared that I’ll end up like her—a wife with no real paying job, two daughters, and no money that she can call her very own, no independence.  She plays golf and tennis, and Lea and I are her first concern. There isn’t anything wrong with the lifestyle she chose, nothing at all, right? So why am I frightened I might turn out the same way? It scares me to think it. I don’t want to depend on anyone financially, and I want a career.   want to do something that makes me feel good inside. I want to make a difference.”  (Taken from the chapter IN THE MIRROR from my Autobiography, age 17) 

Katy made me realize that writing about yourself, and those close to you, can be a rewarding endeavor. I’m now a popular blogger, memoirist, and television screenwriter, where I write honestly about my life daily. And it all began with Katy Roberts, in her classroom, looking to her for guidance.  She was the someone who encouraged me, insisting it was okay to put my life on paper without apology. Katy Roberts is someone who gave me the confidence to be fearless. 

Katy was a teacher with whom I always felt a connection. I didn’t have to come to her confiding big secrets with teenage tears. Just day-to-day, it helped being around her. Whether she was painting sets for the musical or grading grammar papers, it always felt warm and comforting by her side.  And I think that’s what we look for in our teachers, not just their ability to educate but to inspire.



  1. I agree- if we're lucky enough to have one or two teacher's like that, that inspire and encourage us to grow, we are a better person because of it.

  2. I've always found writing very cathartic. But I've only ever really written fiction. Real Life scares me. What's ugly to the eye is even uglier on paper – for me anyway.

    My other has been encouraging me to be honest. "Like that Klein girl." Write the truth, he says.

    It's so freakin hard. But when I manage it, and I'm really trying these days, it's one of the best feelings ever. And one of the worse. Ugh.

    I'm trying on a set of balls. Who knows how it'll turn out.

  3. You are so right about that. For me it was my English teacher. through the methods she used she managed to teach me not only the language (my first language is Greek) but also to:
    1. Keep a journal
    2. Listen to song lyrics

    I believe both the above helped me with the language, but most importantly they helped me discover my love for songs and what a cathartic experience, an outlet for feelings and thoughts writing can be. And these are far more important things than grammar. I still make mistakes when using English, but to me she was the most inspiring, best teacher I ever had.

    Here's to real teachers then!

  4. It was always hard for me to not be brutally honest in my writing. Ive been called abrasive before as well. My friends have been shocked that I would write about my childhood when it spills secrets that Im sure my parents would rather keep discrete. But if you're going to write about your life and learn from all your mistakes, you definitely have to be honest with yourself as well as your readers.

    It was one of the reasons I loved your book.

    Augusten Burroughs is another memoirist I love. He's very forthright.

  5. Dorothy Linder. Senior year of high school. We were required to keep a journal for her class. Though I never really spoke with her, she knew more about me than almost anyone. And she taught me how to know about me. I've been keeping a journal ever since.

    Joan Thiel. Freshman year of college. She challenged me to the highest work ethic. Pointless to mention what class she taught because it doesn't really matter.

    The best teachers don't teach you where to put a comma, or what X equals. The best teachers invite you to learn life-lessons and inspire you to apply them always.

  6. I wish more teachers realized what power and influence they wield. The effects of a bad or insensitive teacher can outlast and outweigh the good of many others. I'll never forget a friend being called a dumb blonde in front of the whole class by our seventh grade math teacher (a woman herself! Though not blonde–of course). I can imagine my friend hasn't forgotten, either.

    You should see that new movie, "Freedom Writers." Looks like it encites the warm & fuzzies yet without the cheese.

  7. I agree with Suzanne. The effects of a bad or insensitive teacher can overshadow the good for a very long time. My Ashley had the same teacher for two years – a teacher who had very low expectations for the children in her special ed classroom. It's sad and funny at the same time how the 'sped' kids would make fun of her behind her back. These were kids that in reports sent home to parents were characterized as having no communication skills and very poor academic skills. But everytime the teacher turned her back, my sweet child would sign 'crazy b*tch' and all the other kids in the class would snicker and giggle.

    Fortunately students are pretty resilient, and the things they remember most into adulthood are the good teachers and the good times. And from my experience with my four children, there are way more good and dedicated teachers than there are bad.

  8. Suzanne you are SO right! My youngest daughter has been blessed with some remarkable teachers but somehow the one evil teacher, "Ms. T", always seems to make her way into being mentioned as well for the negative influence she had so many years ago. The power a teacher holds is a gift to be used wisely. As a teacher myself, I have no tolerance for insensitivity where a child is concerned. Real learning can only take place when a child feels as if they matter.
    Having three teenage daughters….I know exactly what a huge difference there is between 'drama' and 'girl drama' LOL.

  9. i would have said the same thing had i written my thoughts out at that young age. but watch out…motherhood changes that line of thinking, you will soon see that 'living your life' for your children will be the biggest priority and your want for a career and your own pay check pale in comparrison to getting your kids to swimteam practice on time….i'm a mother of four that recently dropped out of the work force all together. the loss of a paycheck and my 'own money' is a big blow to the mind…but when i see other mothers working all day and then making the daycare pick up wondering what they'll make for dinner, i'm happy that i've made the sacrafice. Although, i can imagine my daughters penning the same things you did…
    life is funny………

  10. OOh, I've been off blogging since before Christmas and I just saw your babies came! Congratulations. I hope it doesn't take long for you to get to bring them home. Till then, pump and dump baby. Get some good champagne, though. :) I'm sure you have a good pump, but if you need some recommendations, you know where I am.

  11. And for this, we reward them with mediocre salaries and merit retention programs geared to standardized testing results. Go us.

  12. I wish that I had the gift to write, but instead I was given the gift of the gab. I can stand up in front of a crowd and share my life's story with them and get the feed back that I have changed people's lives. But to try and write it down; it just comes across as plain ol stupid.

    You are right though – there are teachers out there that can make a difference. I too was blessed with one who happened to be a counsellor to the bad assed kids in high school. I was one of the good kids going no where but with both his caring and sarcasm, gave me the gift to believe in myself and in my dreams.

  13. I also had an assignment at one time to keep a journal. I guess you could say that my weakness is being uable to admit weakness. I could never be myself in those journals that I knew some else would read. I've always been terrified that people would see inside and not like it. Why should I care, right?

    Even now, keeping an on-line journal that is password protected I find myself holding back many times from what I'm really thinking and really feeling. I worry that my words, though private, will somehow hurt the ones I love. Those raw feelings, thoughts, and compulsions that we feel in our most private inner soul…those are the things I can't even seem to share with myself.

  14. Have you blocked my comment? I do not think that is fair to your readers who feel different thing Stephanie; I am a loyal, committed reader who also attended your book signing. That hurts.
    Sorry if this repeats- but sometimes your comments do not immediately post:
    For you to have one, let alone TWO memoirs coming out before you are even 35– is quite astonishing I think Stephanie. I guess I could understand this for someone who may have gone through civil wars and poverty or through terminal illness and family tragedy, but for your seemingly well-adjusted physical/ emotional/mental upbringing to yield this fluffy stuff, I just don't know. For the blog it's fantastic, but as your 'life's contribution'?
    I would love to write in journals and then write on a website, gain a huge fan audience that then yields book and tv deals- and do some photography on the side as my 'independent woman' life. What a life! Such the utopia for me, a struggling NY gal who also writes in journals, takes photographs, and started a blog.
    I understand everyone has their 'issues' that come from whatever their family, their problems with food, siblings, self-identity, etc… but still.
    Is this mean to say? Am I the only one who feels this? I guess- ?- I may miss your old posts.

  15. While I have had my own "Katy" in the form of my 12th grade teacher Mr.Young, hands down the teacher I tell the most stories about is my 3rd grade teacher Ms. Tyner. Boy was she a beeyotch! We had crazy amounts of homework every night, and then she had the nerve to set up something called Workshop with additional assignments for everyday of the week. Like 1-page essays and 5 more pages out of the workbook. The catch was if you failed to do the Workshop you couldn’t go to recess. Being the type of girl I am I told her that wasn’t fair and I wasn’t doing them. I don’t think I played a single recess all year. Every time I think about it I laugh at how much moxie I had at the grand old age of 8!

  16. Steph,
    If you have a chance, contact Rick Wilson? Katy is up for the Simmons award and we are all writing letters to ensure that she gets it. Thanks for this lovely tribute to one of my favorite teachers.

  17. I'm sorry but I feel propelled to respond to "Huge Fan." I do not, in any way, feel that keeping an on-line journal, aka a blog. That is not a private thoughts entry- it's a public forum in which others read your work, no matter what it is you are writing about. It operates on a somewhat narcissistic level some people have– this need to share their thoughts with the outside world, I think akin to actors and their egos. I don't find it shameful really, just that is what it is.
    When I really want to express my personal inner thoughts and do self-therapy, I go to a journal that I keep myself for myself that is not connected to anything with the letters www. in front of it. Then it is what it is, pure and I am free to write what I wish about what and whom I wish.

  18. Great post. My "Katy's" are Susan Enfield and Nick Ferentinos. Wonderful teachers who encouraged and inspired me throughout high school. Unfortunately, we've lost touch but I still think of them often.

    Just checked out the pictures of Abigail and Lucas– they are so alert! They are going to get so big faster than you know. I pray every day that they come home to you and Phil soon. Best of luck to you all.

  19. I am so glad to read that you knew at a young age that you wanted to be a woman who "made a difference". I cannot tell you how disgusted I am by the hordes of girls who go off to college for the sole purpose of partying, and who end up in PR/marketing/assistant type jobs for the sole purpose of getting into parties/getting free clothes and whose goal in life is to find a boyfriend/husband.

  20. I had a teacher like that. One day I hope I make her proud like you've undoubtedly made yours proud.

  21. I had a few fantastic teachers like that in my past too. Amazing how one person can make such a difference in our lives.

  22. To Tanya: I was not judging anyone else's choice to keep an on-line journal/blog that others can view. I got the impression you may have been offended by what I wrote and that wasn't my intent. I was simply admitting my own shortcoming (as I see it) in being unable to share those things and be honest.

  23. Thank you for pointing out the long term affects of a good teacher. As a secondary English teacher, I can tell you that it takes extra effort to go above and beyond "just teaching." With the many daily demands placed on teachers, it is a blessing to find a teacher who is determined to inspire in addition to educate.

  24. This post was particualary cool for me to read because Katy is one of my current teachers in SWS, and I look up to her incredible amounts. She hasn't taught that class since I've been apart of SWS, but I'm definately going to suggest it to her after reading this post.
    Also, I just wanted to tell you that ever since you came to speak to SWS last year, I was counting down the days until your book came out. I read it in a few days; I couldn't put it down. I think you're an amazing writer and I hope one day I can make a difference with my writing too.
    Thank you.

  25. Laura, when you said, "I have no tolerance for insensitivity where a child is concerned. Real learning can only take place when a child feels as if they matter" – I couldn't agree more.

    I, too, had several teachers who inspired in me an enormous appreciation for the written word – both my own and others'. I'm now in my first year teaching at a school for kids with special needs, and for many of these kids reading and writing are their absolute least favorite activities. I hope every day that I'm able to help them to realize the joy and power in the written word. And more importantly, I hope I'm able to connect with them in such a way that lets them know that they do matter – and that they're capable of harnessing and experiencing that joy and that power. I'm lucky enough to work at a school where the vast majority of teachers are hugely invested in the students, and even now, as an "adult," observing certain classes and watching the really superior English teachers teach and engage the students is a treat. As a "new" educator I'm grateful for to have the opportunity to learn from them. I hope my students find the same inspiration we all did.

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