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#ThankATeacher: Encouragement to Find My Voice

In celebration of Teacher Appreciation Week (May 4 – 8), we’re saying ‘thank you’ to the extraordinary people who work so hard to inspire student success, even beyond the classroom walls.  We asked NMSI team members to reflect on some of the amazing teachers who have made a difference in their lives. To close the week, we hear from our interim CEO Matthew Randazzo about his high school debate coach, Mrs. Strand. We invite you to tell us your story about a great teacher who touched your life in the comments section below.
I grew up in a low-income community on the west side of Detroit, in a family that fits the classical definition of the working poor. Most of the other kids at my high school also came from underprivileged backgrounds, but we had amazing teachers who worked hard every day on behalf of each one of us. They created opportunities for us, they stretched us and they set a culture of high expectations well before anyone was talking about how important high expectations are for kids.
In 11th grade, I got involved in my school’s speech and debate team, where I met Mrs. Strand. I was always a pretty confident kid. I did well in school and was involved in leadership activities. But I never really had the confidence to command a stage — to get up in front of a group of people and persuade them to adopt my point of view — so this was something new.
At the team’s first competition, my event was oratory. Despite Mrs. Strand’s great coaching, I didn’t practice enough on my own and went to the competition underprepared. To make matters worse, I walked into the auditorium and found myself surrounded by kids from suburban school districts, wearing well-pressed suits. But I didn’t own a suit. Instead, I wore the pair of inexpensive dress pants my parents could afford, a button-down shirt and shoes I borrowed from my father.  I couldn’t have felt more out of place.
I didn’t do particularly well at that competition. I remember finishing my event and feeling so small. I didn’t look the part, I didn’t think I was intelligent enough and I just decided, ‘This isn’t for me. I’m not good enough, I’m not smart enough and I’m never going to be one of those kids.’ And Mrs. Strand said to me, “If that’s the position you’re going to take, then you’re right. You are never going to be one of those kids, because you’re never going to have the opportunity to grow if you decide not to stretch yourself. So you don’t have a suit? That’s fine. This isn’t a best-dressed competition. What is it that you saw those kids do that you can do? What is it that you can learn?” She offered to work with me every day, before school, after school, whenever we could carve out time, to work on my speech and delivery.
For me, that was a really critical moment. I had always been fairly good at whatever I attempted, because I attempted safe things. And for the first time, I was stepping outside of my comfort zone. I had a choice to make: stick with being safe or push myself further. Fortunately, with Mrs. Strand’s encouragement, I chose the latter.
Just last week, I had the opportunity to speak about NMSI’s College Readiness Program at a reception at Vice President Joe Biden’s home in Washington, D.C. Growing up where I did, and being the first in my family to graduate from college, it’s almost unfathomable that I would share a stage with the Vice President of the United States. When Mrs. Strand heard about the event (we’re still in touch, thanks to Facebook), she sent me a message saying, “I knew you’d achieve great things, Matthew Randazzo.” I know she really did believe that.
So, to Mrs. Strand and to all the teachers who set high expectations for their students, who challenge them and push them to find their passion, who believe in kids even before they believe in themselves, THANK YOU. Teachers like you make stories like mine possible.