In 2001, I met Dr. Chris Jones of the Special Education Department at Longwood College. I was a bright-eyed 17-year-old, embarking upon my college career to become an elementary educator. The speaker on this ‘Introduction to Education’ day was Dr. Jones. An energetic and possibly a little crazy professor, hell-bent on making us all into Special Education majors. He didn’t hide his agenda at all, in fact, he let us all know that by the time we graduated from Longwood, we would all in fact be Special Education majors.

In that moment, my deep admiration for Dr. Jones began and over the next five years, time spent with him only served to deepen my admiration for him as an educator. He is the reason I pursued my Master's degree in Curriculum and Instruction with emphasis on Special Education. In my journey to become an educator, that is the single most important decision, apart from attending Longwood, that I have made.

I owe every bit of that decision to Dr. Jones.

His passion for education and relentless pursuit to address the needs of all learners was and still is inspiring to say the least.

A few weeks ago, I was on my way to attend and present at the Virginia Association of Science Teachers Professional Development Institute when I happened to cross paths, after 14 years, with Dr. Jones. I stop by Longwood every year that this professional development institute is in Roanoke, VA, it’s a great excuse to visit my Alma Mater, and to date, had never been able to meet up with Dr. Jones.

This was my year.

Having an educator so important to your own journey in education is incredibly special and I have wanted, for years, to express this sentiment to Dr. Jones in person and it never seemed to work out. Email exchanges here and there, missed connections, schedule conflicts, you name it — and it got in the way of us catching up.

This was my year.

I stopped by Longwood and ate lunch with one of my sorority sisters who is now a professor there (#goals). It was absolutely fantastic. Before leaving campus, I decided to just take a walk through the education building. Literally every name was new to me. At each alcove of offices, I stopped to read the name plates, hoping to catch one of my beloved professors, but each new alcove had a set of new names. Names that were not there in my hay day.

Missed opportunities to show gratitude littered my brain and my heart raced and sank at the same time.

As I neared the last set of four offices, I saw a familiar name: Dr. Chris Jones

While I knew he was still a professor on campus, seeing his name on the name plate, in the same office he was in while I was there made my heart a little lighter. What’s more…the office door was ajar.

This is it.

This was my year.

I peaked into the office and saw him. I reached for the door, trying to contain my excitement as I knocked. He was busy on the computer, his fingers flurried over the keys.

This was my year.

He turned and greeted me with a warm “Hello, come on in!”

“Are you sure? If you are busy, it’s okay!” Those words flew out of my mouth although I did not really mean them. I had been waiting for this moment for 14 years. If we was busy though, I would respect that — but I think you know what I mean here.

“No, come on in! Take a seat, what’s up?” Dr. Jones replied.

In just that moment I spilled 14 years of, “You inspired me, challenged me, molded me as an educator” thank yous in about 45 seconds worth of time. I naturally speak quickly, but this was hyperdrive for sure. As I rambled and began to blush in a bit of embarrassment as I thought about what this probably sounds and looks like, one thing was certain — Dr. Jones was taken aback, in a good way. He smiled from ear to ear and listened as I gushed about things he taught me and the positive impact he had and continues to have on me as an educator. I know I expressed my thankfulness while I was a student at Longwood, but there are stories I never shared with him; especially about how my first impression of Longwood and the education department was his keynote address which had a profound impact on me even before my first course as an undergraduate. In fact, it was that Keynote coupled with his mentorship during my senior year at Longwood that sealed my choice of him as my graduate studies/thesis advisor. He is THAT educator that is tough, passionate, and inspirational by the example he sets.

Over the next hour of time, I told him what I have been up to in education the last 14 years and he shared how Longwood has changed as well. We shared visions for the future of education as a whole and where the next ten years might take us in our educational arenas. He introduced me to two newer faculty in the Special Education Department and although they are not the professors I had, the school of Education is definitely in great hands!

This whole experience made me think about the incredible opportunity and influence we have every single day on our students and colleagues. Are we making the most of the time we have to make a difference? Even 14 years after I was in Dr. Jones’ courses and working under his mentorship, he is still pushing, still looking for innovation, next steps, and ways to improve his craft…which undoubtedly improves the craft of his students as well; future educators in schools worldwide. It’s that kind of leadership that makes a difference. When your students and colleagues see you continuing to develop, challenge yourself, and learn — it makes a positive difference. Every interaction counts whether we realize it or not; the tone of voice, word choice, facial expression, body language — they all matter. These simple choices along with the larger ones such as technology integration, social interactions within our curriculum, the way we choose to deliver content and practice skills with students, assessments, collaboration within and outside of our own schools — it all matters. Your time and effort to make a difference matter although it may take 14 years to pass for a student to tell you — it is all worth it.

This experience also made me think about gratitude — are we showing it enough? Are we making an effort to tell those who positively influence us just how amazing they are as frequently as we can? Or are we allowing 14 years, fleeting email exchanges, and mismatched schedules to impede our sharing of gratitude? We cannot simply allow these things to stand in the way — we must show gratitude to students, colleagues, family, mentors, and even that stranger that held the door for you at the supermarket, and we need to do it frequently.

Be the difference.

Show gratitude.

#ExpeditionSchnekser #OutdoorEdCollective #BoilingRiver #EducatorExplorer she/her #scitlap Founder @OutdoorEdColl National Geographic Grantee