It is my hope that all of us have had at least one teacher who really made a huge impression on us at some point. I have been extremely fortunate, as I have had a bunch of terrific teachers over the years. The truly great ones make you look forward to their class every day. I had a few in high school that were truly exceptional. Mr. Kelley, my Pre-A.P. U.S. History teacher, who had a great sense humor and storytelling ability. Dr. Powaski, for A.P. U.S. History, who was one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met, and was a published author. Mr. Gubitosi for Latin I and II. He had a deep love for the art of teaching, and truly cared about our learning as students.
The one who stands at the top of the mountain was my Algebra I and Algebra II teacher, Mr. Serra. He is the single-most engaging teacher that I have ever met. When I started high school, I was drowning in my Algebra I placement. The teacher was very nice, but my skill sets were not up to par for the pace of her class. My guidance counselor told me before Christmas Break that I would be transferred to Mr. Serra’s Algebra I class after vacation.
During break, I saw Mr. Serra at basketball practice. He was walking through the gym, and I told him that I would be in his class after vacation. I wanted to tell him that he was inheriting me, my 54% grade in Algebra I, and that I had zero self-confidence when it came to higher math. The look on my face must have said it all, as Mr. Serra said: “Don’t worry there, William. It’s all going to work out.” I appreciated his kind words, but I thought that he had no idea how lost I was.
Within the first two weeks of being in his class, Mr. Serra had taken my shattered confidence and built it up. I was solving equations and working complex problems with ease. He was never too busy to meet with any of us before or after school, or during his planning time. The time in his class flew by every day, as Mr. Serra would crack jokes, hit the board with his yardstick to make a point, sing, and do anything to keep our attention. I always talk to my students now about building “the foundation” to set themselves up for the future. Mr. Serra is one of those people that helped me build a foundation. My mother liked to use the phrase “magic people”, meaning that there are some individuals that can really have a great impact on you at key moments. Mr. Serra certainly fits that definition. I always taught with a yardstick in my hand as a daily tribute to him. (My original yardstick was the first thing that I hung up in the I.H.S. principal’s office in 2011.)
I last saw Mr. Serra in 2012, when my Mom passed away. He came to the funeral home, as my younger brother and sister were also lucky enough to have him as a teacher. When I saw him, I said: “There’s the greatest math teacher of them all.” Being Mr. Serra, he said “where?”, and turned around to look behind where he was standing. His sense of humor is still intact, all these years later.
If you ever had a teacher like Mr. Serra in your life, consider taking the time to thank them. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been out of school for decades or if you are still a student. The kindness of an email, note, or a call from a former student has a tremendous impact on a teacher. The best teachers always stay with you, no matter how long ago you were in class.