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The Power of a Preschool Teacher: A Lesson from the Life of Les Brown

By Debbie Martin, Director of Operations, The Malvern School

Internationally recognized inspirational speaker. Best-selling author. Television personality. Politician.

Les Brown is known for many things. But had it not been for one extraordinary preschool teacher – among other important influences – his life might look very different today. 

I recently had the opportunity to hear Les speak at a conference for early childhood educators. His story truly spoke to me … and to the critical work of those who nurture and teach young children.

A Fundamental Influence
The historian Henry Brooks Adams once said, “Teachers affect eternity; no one can tell where their influence stops.”

We know, however, where it starts, and that’s in the classroom with the most impressionable of students. In our classrooms, lessons and experiences every day – every minute – have the ability to shape toddlers and preschoolers at a fundamental level. From how they interact with others to what they value … to how they see the world or how they see themselves (even as adults), early childhood educators have a deep-seated influence on the lives of young children and the generation of tomorrow.

While we know this is true, there are times when this is more explicit than others. Les’s experience is one of those times.

Three Words – A Life Forever Changed
What many people don’t know is that Les had a tumultuous childhood. According to his biography, “Born a twin in low-income Liberty City in Miami, Florida, Les and his twin brother, Wes, were adopted when they were six weeks old by Mrs. Mamie Brown. Mrs. Brown was a single woman who had very little education or financial means, but a very big heart. As a child Les Brown’s inattention to school work, his restless energy, and the failure of his teachers to recognize his true potential resulted in him being mislabeled as a slow learner. The label and the stigma stayed with him, damaging self-esteem to such an extent that it took several years to overcome.”

These were dark, deeply hurtful experiences for Les. But what helped him push through these hard times were three simple words: “You’re special, honey.”

That’s what his preschool teacher believed and instilled in him. And she did it in a way so powerful that it became a mantra, a light among darkness, for Les, and helped him to believe in his own self-worth and potential years later.

That’s the influence of a preschool teacher at work. That’s the weight our words and actions carry, not only in one minute or on one day, but for years and years to come. That’s our power – and our responsibility – in action.

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