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Thinking caps and gowns

Elementary teachers reflect on watching their former students graduate high school

Senior+Brandon+Merrill+poses+with+his+Lovejoy+Elementary+fourth+grade+teacher+Jill+Wilkins.
Senior Brandon Merrill poses with his Lovejoy Elementary fourth grade teacher Jill Wilkins.

Senior Brandon Merrill poses with his Lovejoy Elementary fourth grade teacher Jill Wilkins.

Carter Bryant

Carter Bryant

Senior Brandon Merrill poses with his Lovejoy Elementary fourth grade teacher Jill Wilkins.

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It’s a sight only an elementary school teacher knows. Their eyes follow the same kid across the stage, diploma in hand. It’s almost laughable- the student who asked how to spell “boots” on what feels like just yesterday, wears a gown and maybe even a beard today.

It’s the sight of graduation through the eyes of the teachers who raised them.

“It’s so amazing to see [the seniors] in their cap and gown, and they’re all grown up,” Lovejoy Elementary fourth grade teacher Jill Wilkins said. “I knew they were going to be great. Some of the things we see even in fourth grade, we know that’s going to be something that will be so special about you when you’re grown up.”

Wilkins said she looks forward to attending graduation every year, and her students’ transformations often shock her.

“We love to be surprised,” Wilkins said. “The kid who struggled in reading in fourth grade is walking at graduation with a National Honors Society cord. That’s so cool.”

Some teachers, including former second grade teacher Nicole Mills of Heart Elementary, are shocked by drastic physical changes like height. Even though students have grown and changed, she still remembers the second grade classroom.

“We talk a lot about how we are a classroom family who work together and take care of one another while we learn and grow,” Mills said. “ I hope they continue to remember they are an important part of a school family and know that I will always be cheering them on.”

Other teachers, like Wilkins, further their relationship from a teacher-student relationship to a friendship between adults.

“They’re all doing something interesting with their lives,” Wilkins said. “That’s really cool, and that’s what I want to know about. [They] automatically become an adult in my eyes. I can’t help to remember [them] as fourth graders, but now, that memory has collided with how grown up they look and act.”

While students may not remember a specific lesson plan four years later, seniors said they remembered how teachers treated them.

“Honestly, I don’t remember the work. I just remember [Mrs. May] as being a nice person and helping us in all of the fun ways,” senior Jackson Carswell said. “She’s one of those teachers that I’ve remembered. She’s left an impression on me.”

Carswell’s fourth grade teacher Rebecca May later said she wanted to leave an impact just like he described. She said she wants to be remembered as “being fun and for caring about them and always being there for them, and lastly as a good teacher.”

Senior Brandon Merrill, Wilkins’ former student, learned most from teachers he knew outside of the classroom.

“I think teachers are more than just lectures and information,” Merrill said. “I think what really makes a good teacher is being able to connect outside, and that is something I do remember from Mrs. Wilkins. She made a point to talk to all of her former students at the senior breakfast.”

The senior breakfast at elementary schools may be the last time many teachers will talk with their former students, though both teachers and students have said they hope to keep in touch.

“I want to see [elementary school teachers] and middle school teachers again,” senior Alex Droge, Mills’ former student, said. “I’d like for them to see how much I’ve changed and developed and in what ways I’ve been successful.”

Because of the hours of tutoring and lesson planning teachers devote to students, their lasting effect on the kids is natural, but what many students don’t know is that they teach their teachers without trying.

“Every group is special, but there’s something about your first set,” said May, whose first graduating class is that of 2017. “You learn a lot together, so you feel like you grew up with them a little bit in fourth grade.”

Wilkins and May said they actively try to leave a lasting impact on their students even though they are so young.

“Academically, of course, I want to have a huge impact on them, but that’s kind of secondary to me,” May said. “But the most important thing, for me, is that I have formed a relationship with them enough that they feel that they are a special part of my life, and if they leave with nothing else but feeling that I love them, and that they are special to me, I feel like that is a win.”

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