I've worked closely with The MY HERO Project for years now and I'm still moved and amazed by the heroes I see in story, art and film... people who make the world a little bit better every day. And so often the ones that make the biggest impression are hidden in plain sight. They're the people we see every day; moms and dads, brothers and sisters, bosses, coaches and teachers.
|Laura at school. (Laura Nietzer ())|
My hero is a Girl Scout from New Jersey.
Laura Nietzer grew up like a lot of us. Like most of us, she wasn't born into exceptional wealth or fame or talent. But my hero was born with a natural instinct to follow her heart, to make the decisions - not always popular or easy - that set her on her current path. The first of these was just before high school.
That's when Laura joined the Girl Scouts of America.
"I was in 8th grade and it was considered really uncool." Now 8th graders, to be sure, are getting to that age when they're becoming adults but being "uncool"? That's territory few of us would have ventured into. Still, she had a friend, Tammy, who would take the leap with her and the two of them found something they weren't necessarily looking for, something that would change them forever; a role model. "We had an excellent girl scout leader, Mrs. Stillman (not her mom, Marion Stillman) who taught us to be self-reliant and independent through all the outdoor activities. Hiking the Appalachian trail, going to Wyoming and back-packing the Tetons... It really taught me that I could take care of myself. It taught me self-confidence."
These lessons would serve Laura well through the rest of her high school and college education where she majored in Political Science. And, once out in the world, this new-found self-confidence would come in handy when she became the first woman sales manager in her area. Despite the success she found in her chosen field, she sensed something was missing; something she'd lost when she left the Girl Scouts. "Community service (in the Scouts) was non-negotiable. I learned that doing things for other people isn't just important - it gives you internal satisfaction."
|Laura at the iEARN Conference Gala TAIWAN (Laura Nietzer ())|
It was this "internal satisfaction" that led Laura to her next big decision. And like joining the Girl Scouts, it wasn't exactly considered "cool". Not even by Laura.
"There were three things I KNEW when I was little: I would never be a secretary, a nurse or a teacher - those were the (women's) roles of the past. I had a subscription to Ms. Magazine, supported the ERA. But I also had a friend named Delphine, who was a teacher and when we would get together, she was the only person who seemed to get any real satisfaction in her career. That's when I started thinking maybe sales was not what I wanted to do."
As it turns out, what Laura wanted to do would ultimately mean leaving a promising career in marketing to take a pay cut and begin the arduous task of earning the credentials she'd need to become a teacher. "It wasn't an easy decision and I've never regretted it."
"It was a six-year process before I could just be a teacher.
I couldn't have done it without my husband, Paul. I couldn't make a change like that unless I had a really supportive spouse." Laura would find more support from her mother, former teacher Barbara Stillman, her beloved step-father Bob Stillman and her little brother Tom, the person who gave Laura her first taste of teaching playing school when they were little kids.
|The campus of Saddle River Day School (Courtesy of Saddle River Day ())|
For the past nineteen years, Laura has taught elementary students. She started with 1st and 2nd graders then spent 12 years teaching 4th grade at Saddle River Day School, where she currently teaches 6th grade.
"I was using MY HERO through iEARN (International Educators and Resources Network) and I wanted to use some other iEARN projects. When the 6th grade teacher left, my administrator knew I wanted to expand in this area. I switched to teaching 6th graders so I could teach Geography. Through iEarn projects like MY HERO Learning Circles, I could teach them - not by memorization - but by interaction with other classrooms around the world.'
A desire to expand her students' learning experience led Laura to her first iEARN conference in Canada. "I knew it would be good for my students, but I had no idea how fulfilling it would be for me personally," she explains, "My very first project was with a MY HERO Learning Circle. It puts you in touch with a small circle of schools - it's all about getting to know each other and then sharing our stories, our heroes together. One student in Morocco did a really great hero story about his donkey. To learn that someone across the world finds a donkey heroic for what it does for his village - for my students, that's eye-opening."
As if to return the favor, one of Laura's students, Emmy, would introduce the Learning Circle to her hero, her father. Jeremy Glick was a passenger on one of the hijacked airliners, United Airlines Flight 93, on 9/11. He was among the passengers that stormed the cockpit before the flight crashed. He and his wife, Lyz, had both gone to the school where Laura teaches - where Emmy is a student - Saddle River Day school. They had been prom King and Queen.
"His daughter Emmy was less than 3 months old when he (Jeremy Glick) died. To research the story for her MY HERO project, she talked to relatives and teachers at school - it gave her the opportunity to get to know her dad as a person. And it gave the Glick family a chance to celebrate his memory and talk about the old family stories. It wasn't the easiest thing but it was very fulfilling."
Once they'd finished the project, Laura wanted to take it to the next step. Together with MY HERO and the Learning Circle, they created a "Call to Action" in which everyone participated. "We got in contact with Jen Glick (Jeremy's sister) who started Jeremy's Heroes, a non-profit." Originally, their goal was to raise money for Jeremy's Heroes. But this was right after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, so they decided that what they most wanted to do was what Jeremy would have wanted. After some deliberation, they decided to a joint fundraising project for those hardest hit in Japan.
|Laura and friends ( ())|
Part of the "Call to Action" at the end of their MY HERO Learning Circle, was a short film Laura's class made about the project.
"MY HERO sent us a camera and mic, put me in touch with Skip Blumberg and he taught us how to use the equipment. A lot of the film was done the day Skip was there. He really worked well with the students, filming interviews and teaching them how to set everything up. Shooting, sound, etc."
And along the way, Laura witnessed something any teacher would love; a breakthrough. In her class was a talented student who, nonetheless, had very specific learning challenges Laura was working to understand better. As it turned out, making a short film was a way of learning that he could excel in. "What I love about MY HERO is you can hit different kids' learning style and strengths. It fits any classroom because it's so multifaceted."
So who is Laura's hero?
|Juliette Gordon Low (courtesy of InfoBarrel.com ())|
"That's a really hard question but when I thought about it, I'd have to say, it's Juliette Gordon Low. She started the Girl Scouts in America."
And in turn, The Girl Scouts started something in Laura that's made her who she is.
"I am more self-confident and I volunteer. I'm very involved with the community. I go to school activities and support the children. I volunteer in my neighborhood. Girl Scouts really showed me that being involved in the community enriches your life. And that has a lot to do with why I decided to teach."
And nineteen years later, that decision continues to bear fruit.
"I have to say, I love my job more than anybody I know. I have a smile on my face every day I drive to school."
"It's something that matters. Every day is different. You have a classroom of individual learning styles and children. And you can influence them... whether teaching them to be more independent or confident or how to handle a crisis."
My hero, Laura Nietzer has influenced hundreds of students through the years, students that drop by years later just to say hi, students she met in kindergarten and then taught in fourth grade who are now starring in the high school play... but she's influenced me, too. She's inspired me to rethink how involved I am with my own community. She makes me ask myself, "am I making a positive difference in the lives of those around me?"
In writing this story, I've learned a lot about Laura Nietzer, the teacher, the citizen, the Girl Scout, but perhaps none of what I learned speaks louder than her own words:
"People matter. It's not about a thing. It's about people."