How to Thank a Teacher in the Digital Age

Thirty years ago I was a math student in the classroom of Mr. Roger Cappucci at Scarsdale High School, in Scarsdale, New York. I adored Mr. Cappucci's teaching style. He's a teacher with a sparkle in his eyes. He's friendly, funny, smart, and exuberant, and he holds his students to high standards. He's been teaching high school math since 1957, and he's back teaching again this year – his 52nd year of teaching.

One of the things I remember best about Mr. Cappucci is that he takes a personal interest in every student. Right in the middle of math class he would turn to me and ask, “Phil, there's a cross country meet this afternoon. How do you think our school's team is going to do?” I loved running cross country and it meant the world to me that my math teacher knew that. He could tell you which students in the class were artists, which were football players, which were gymnasts. He cared about us as people, not just as students: The hallmark of an outstanding teacher.

Five years ago I decided I needed to track him down to thank him. I've earned a living as a teacher for most of my adult life. I was thrilled to discover that he was still teaching. A considerate teacher at the school passed along his e-mail address to me.

There's lots of ways to thank a teacher. You could write a letter or make a phone call. Neither of those worked for me. Mr. Cappucci changed my life. I couldn't describe that well enough in a letter. And a phone call could be intrusive. He has taught thousands of students over the years. The last thing he needs is a constant barrage of phone calls thanking him.

So I decided to make a 15-minute Web video to describe how and why his teaching style worked so well for me. This video was created for an audience of one. Anyone else could view it, but I created it specifically for Mr. Cappucci to view. I uploaded this video to the Internet Archive, which provides free, unlimited hosting for videos.

I sent Mr Cappucci an e-mail with the link to this video. He watched the video via cable modem in his apartment. I know I had done my duty as a student when he sent me a short e-mail saying thanks.

The story doesn't end there, though. Last year I received an e-mail from the Internet Archive that someone had posted a comment about this video. That's strange. In my experience, very few people leave comments about videos on the Internet Archive. The short, supportive comment was from someone named Brewster, who also had Mr. Cappucci as a math teacher.

Wait a second. Brewster Kahle is the founder of the Internet Archive. Could he possibly have attended the same high school I attended? Apparently so. The high school was a pretty large one. A quick Google search confirmed that Brewster graduated one year ahead of me at Scarsdale High School. Come to think of it, I might have been on the same indoor track team – or cross country team – as Brewster. Small world.

Last year I started teaching a graduate class in educational technology at American University, in Washington, DC. As I stood in front of my students listening to myself teach, I heard not my own voice teaching – I heard Mr. Cappucci's voice teaching. His mind – the mind of an exemplary teacher – had entered my own mind. With hardly any effort I summoned it up and added just a touch of my own teaching style.

After my first day of teaching college I sent Mr. Cappucci a short e-mail to let him know that another one of his students had become a college professor. If a teacher has changed your life, you have got to let them know. You've got to try hunt them down. You won't always find that teacher still alive, but when you do, you can say the most powerful words any human being can say. You can say, “Thank you.” And in the digital age, you can choose to say thank you via audio or video on the Web. It's the right thing to do and you'll enjoy the process of doing it.

For those who might be interested, here is the 15-minute tribute video I made about Mr. Cappucci (QuickTime format - Internet Archive) -- and a shortened version I uploaded to YouTube.

And here is an Ogg version of this same video on the Internet Archive.

Phil Shapiro

(The blogger works as the public geek at the Takoma Park Maryland Library and is an Adjunct Professor of education at American University, in Washington DC. He can be reached at philshapiroblogger@gmail.com or via Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/philshapiro)

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