The Difference an Acknowledgment by a Student named “Stalin” Made to a Teacher at her Wits’ End!

On a recent holiday in a warm place, I met one of the most dedicated and caring sounding elementary school teachers I have ever had the good fortune to meet! Sandra Nazario regaled and inspired me with tales of the challenges she faces on a daily basis in her school. She described in such wonderful detail one of the most important moments of her career that I asked her to write it up. Her story affirms, confirms, and dramatically illustrates the power of acknowledgment in action, in education. Her story demonstrates how a student’s validation of the difference she had made in his life kept her from leaving her teaching career…for good. We have all had a teacher who dramatically affected our lives…but have we told them? Let Sandra’s story of a 10-year-old student named “Stalin” inspire us all to do so.

It was December 2003.  At this time, I am a teacher in a public school in Harlem NY.  I am 2 years and 4 months into my career.  To say that at that time, how I had pictured teaching to be and the reality of it were at odds with each other, would be an understatement.  My principal and I did not see eye to eye.  It was the end of the workday; Christmas vacation was ahead of me.  I went to the parking lot thinking two things: one, I need to clean off the snow from my car; and two, I was not planning on returning back to work.  My plan wasn’t clear as to whether I would try to transfer or quit teaching altogether.

The lack of appreciation, the constant disrespect, plus the feeling of chaos was just too much!  To add insult to injury, I find my car had a flat tire!  I started to get angry at everything, including God.  As I began looking for my triple AAA card, and a ten-year-old student named Stalin comes running to me, hands me an envelope, says “Merry Christmas!” and runs off.

Stalin was the horrific class clown — every teacher’s worst nightmare back in 1999 when I first started teaching.  He will always be remembered by me for several reasons.  His behavior was legendary at the time.  Till this day he is the only student that has come through our doors with the name Stalin.  Did I mention Stalin is Dominican?  Finally, he gave me the gaudiest most beautiful Christmas card I have ever received.  It was guilded with gold and had a pop up Santa in the front, not to mention that it played “Feliz Navidad” when you opened it.  It also had some of the tiniest writing I have ever read.  It was filled on three sides with Stalin’s deep, heartfelt gratitude and acknowledgment of all he believed I had done for him.  He attributed my strictness with him and the high expectations I demanded he meet, as the reasons why he was now graduating from our school with honors and entering a private middle school, for which only an elite group of public school students could qualify.

After reading that card, I had a good cry, called triple AAA and remembered why I had decided to become a teacher in the first place.  I looked up and said, “Okay You win God! I guess I’m coming back in January.”  It is now January, 2018, and once again I return to the same school to continue to teach the new “Stalins” I have in my class this year.

By: Sandra Nazario

Here’s another amazing story about the power of acknowledgment in education, and the impact that great teachers have on us…forever!


Until the next time,


Judy Umlas