Few words in the English language can match the power of a simple thank you. From a card for a gift received, to a pat on the back for a job well done, “thank you” costs the giver little and can mean the world to the recipient.
Whitesboro Teachers Association member Sue Ellen Williams experienced that a few years ago when a former student contacted her out of the blue. “I got an email asking if I was the Ms. Williams who taught at Niskayuna High School,” said Williams who began her career with a one-year appointment teaching advanced art at her hometown high school near Albany.
The former student was Brian Chesky, co-founder of Airbnb. His request — would Williams attend his induction ceremony into the Niskayuna High School Hall of Fame? Out of the many teachers he’d had throughout his life, she was one of his favorites.
“I didn’t even know he had achieved that level of success,” said Williams, a self-described homebody who rarely does much traveling beyond drives back to Niskayuna for family visits. After leaving the district for a full-time art position in Whitesboro near Utica, she’d kept in touch with the educator who took over for her, but hadn’t heard from Brian since. She attended the ceremony, which dovetailed with Niskayuna’s high school graduation, met with Chesky and his family and was thrilled to hear his words of encouragement for the newly minted graduates.
He credits Williams with his decision to attend art school at the Rhode Island School of Design, a choice his parents weren’t initially thrilled with. “I believed strongly in Brian,” said Williams who sat down with Chesky’s parents to show them his work and reassure them he had the talent and drive to succeed in the arts. Although many parents worry their children won’t find work with an art degree, Williams disagrees. “I tell my students that everything they see was designed by an artist.”
Chesky met his future business partner at RISD, and the rest is vacation history.
Wanting to “make an impact” is what led her into teaching in the first place. Her parents were educators and she saw first hand the influence their work had on students. That desire, the push to make a difference, is a shared trait for most teachers, said Williams. “Along the way someone ‘included’ us and we want to do that for others.
Williams keeps this portrait of her father in her classroom. Both of her parents were teachers, which inspired her to become an educator.
“It means the world when you have kids go on and do great things,” she said noting that seeing Chesky’s evolution from student to successful adult, and knowing she played a role in it, is humbling. “As a teacher, it’s such a huge honor to be remembered as a positive influence in someone’s life.”