How having a teacher that heard me, saw me, and looked like me, led me to enter public service

Every year a 3rd-grade teacher has a class full of 20+ curious, timid, energetic, joyful, and loving young people eager to learn how to read, solve math equations, understand grammar, practice their full names in cursive, and understand history. A room full of young people who are simply eager to learn how to be good humans. Each year, kids enter the classroom in the fall, are stamped with impressionable moments that live deep in the backs of their brains. They then shuffle out for summer break and then return down the hall the next fall. What happens 30 years later, when that teacher has nurtured and watered 750 kids? What happens when they grow up and do all the things that the teacher told them that they were capable of doing?

Today I reconnected with my 3rd-grade teacher, Ms. Bakke after our executive director asked us at a department-wide staff meeting to think about our favorite teachers and share memories in honor of Teacher Appreciation Week. I immediately texted my 2nd-grade best friend, who is now an elementary teacher, and asked: “Are you connected to Ms. Bakke? Is she still teaching? Wasn’t she great?!”

Those moments in the back of my brain that I had not accessed in years came back so quickly.

Didn’t we have a guinea pig in her class? Wasn’t it pregnant when the class adopted it? That unfortunate surprise led to three times the work of our wonderful teacher to find homes every weekend and during long school breaks for the furry rodents.

Didn’t I see her one Saturday at Folsom Field? I remember how cool I thought it was that I saw Ms. Bakke at the CU game! She let us sing the Buff’s fight song in class. I wanted to go to college like her!

Shelley (bottom right) and her family visit Folsom Field for a CU game.

I remember learning cursive in her class, and oh, the cozy reading corner, dancing to fun music, all in the sunny blue classroom in the corner of the courtyard.

My search on Linkedin found her! I wrote a quick note that said, “If this is the Ms. Bakke that taught at Fremont Elementary in Jeffco Public Schools in 1992, I just wanted to share my appreciation for you during Teacher Appreciation Week. I work at the Colorado Department of Higher Education now.” And then I waited, nervously. What if she didn’t remember me? Maybe there is a different Ms. Bakke teaching 4th-grade in Douglas County.

She wrote back “I can’t believe it! Of course, I remember you and I even remember seeing you at the CU game! (Go Buffs!) Did you end up going to CU since you already knew the fight song?” She was just as funny as I remembered!

We wrote back and forth. I shared a picture of my daughter because she wondered if she had blonde hair like me. And it made me think, I now know what enormous pressures teachers are put under, how difficult their work is — day in and day out, and my 3rd-grade teacher still remembers me, Shelley, a student from 30 years ago. It also made me think about how lucky I was to have a teacher that really saw me, heard me, wanted me to be successful. Even more, I had someone who “looked” like me.

Shelley proudly wears her CU Buffs jacket.

I apologized for being a nosy 3rd-grader who undoubtedly was unaware of the concept of personal space and privacy on the weekend. She replied “You were never in my space. I’d go to the ends of the earth to see kids and let them know how much I love them. Seeing you at the game brought me as much joy as it did you.” She also said she is a big advocate for teacher preparation programs emphasizing how important it is to connect deeply with kids.

So, to Ms. Laura Bakke, thank you for all you do for “kids” like me who grow up to want to be in public service roles, and to be parents dedicated to creating spaces where our children’s teachers know how much they are appreciated and loved right back. I am proud to work in a role at the State of Colorado where K-12 education and funding is a major priority of our Governor. I am proud to work with great colleagues and campus professionals who are dedicated to making sure new teachers are being recruited that look like the diverse population in our state and where ed prep programs seek to provide resources where teachers can flourish with the knowledge and practice to genuinely connect to every child in their classroom like you did with me.

A grown-up Shelley with her daughter Viv.

Shelley Banker is a proud alum of CU Denver. Though not officially a Buff, she still enjoys tailgating and attending games, a family tradition since the early ’80s. She is the senior director of the Colorado Opportunity Scholarship Initiative and senior advisor to the Office of Educational Equity at the Colorado Department of Higher Education. She loves vintage Volkswagen Beetles and enjoys introducing her daughter, Vivienne (who looks just like her), to everything nature has to offer.

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Colorado Department of Higher Education

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