Ways to Impact Your Students and Leave a Legacy: The Phil Fowler Story

Do you remember your favorite teacher?

Who could ever forget that teacher?  Who could ever forget the special way that teacher inspired you and made you a better student and person at the same time?

That memorable teacher influenced you in countless ways and is someone you will never forget. Why? Because he or she connected with you beyond just the class curriculum and made a deep, special impact on the human being you were then and the person and professional you are today.

That dynamic and connected teacher seems to be a rare gem in today’s educational world. Too many teachers seem so bogged down in endless tasks and duties that there is not enough time to build real relationships with their students. Teachers worry about getting through “their curriculum,” and preparing for standardized tests that they ignore one of the most important aspects of their job – the creation and presence of a positive classroom culture where students flourish.

That is why all educators today should know and study the remarkable story of master teacher Phil Fowler, my mentor and my father.

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Always a friend, students thrived around Mr. Fowler’s positive, passionate attitude for education.

Love your job

Mr. Fowler taught at Litchfield High School in rural Connecticut for 44 incredible years, beginning his journey in 1969 immediately after graduating from college and ending it in 2013. The three-time district teacher of the year loved science, and emulated his passion by teaching an array of science classes in his career. He specialized in teaching biology, but his anatomy and physiology class were the most popular in the school. My dad strongly believed and preached that everyone should be a lifelong learner. And he walked the walk! When he started a Forensics class in 2010 – his 41st year of teaching - from scratch, he wrote curriculum all summer long, and even attended a week-long Forensics seminar the following two summers at Yale University, hosted by the world-renowned scientist, Henry Lee.

Take time to help students who need extra help

However, what made my incredible father, so special and so legendary was his extraordinary ability to connect with his students.  He had an enthusiastic, optimistic way he interacted with people that naturally drew students towards his energy and passion.  He could take a kid who, according to one of his former principals, “didn’t give a damn about adults,” and mold him into a respectful young person. My dad did his best work connecting with those kids on the fringe, students who were barely making it. He would take extra time with those kids, before class, after class, in study halls, anytime he was free, and make sure he built a meaningful, real relationship with them. In some cases, my father would use differentiated instruction--before it was an educational buzzword--to help his students make it through high school. I remember my dad telling me a story about a troubled young man in the mid-1980s who was put in his biology class in hopes of “getting him straightened out.” Well, my father got to know this student pretty well and found out he loved to build things. With this knowledge, he had him build cabinets and counters for the mini-greenhouse his classes were using that semester. This student finally felt like he was successful and belonged, and it changed the course of his high school career.

Motivate your students with energy and passion

My father was an amazing and moving public speaker. His motivational speeches in front of his classes, or sometimes the entire school, were sometimes better than his lectures on DNA or mitosis vs. meiosis. My dad’s inspiring, emotional speeches made the audience learn, laugh, and sometimes even cry. “He was also one of the most influential people in my life,” a former student remembered. “His guidance gave me direction. His advice gave me courage. His stories helped me interpret the world. He literally had a story for everything!” Students and faculty alike gravitated to whatever he was talking about because his content and delivery were both filled with passionate words and positive messages. That’s why he was selected as the keynote speaker at graduation over ten times in his illustrious career. The LHS yearbook seemed to be dedicated to my father every...single...year!

 

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Author, Dennis Fowler shares his personal photos of Phil Fowler and his family 

Make a powerful impact

The magnitude of this special connecting power was, unfortunately, revealed to its full extent when my father suddenly died of a massive heart attack in May 2016, just days before his 69th birthday. The loss hit our family extremely hard. My Dad was an immense figure and role model, not only to myself, but also to my brothers Jeff, Mark,  and, of course, my mother, Joan.

But we were completely stunned by the enormous impact my father’s death had on the Litchfield community, and the thousands of former students and colleagues he had touched.

On the night of my dad’s wake, my family and I were prepared for a large crowd to gather at Scott’s Funeral Home in our hometown of Terryville. However, what we experienced that night is still almost unbelievable. We waited and greeted thousands of mourners for seven and half hours! Most of those who came through to pay their respects were former students who had been touched in some way by my Dad.  Some even ordered pizza and Chinese takeout while waiting for hours. Most of them stayed in line for over four hours to say goodbye to the man who had profoundly influenced their lives. Our family received hundreds of emails and texts from people who never made it in because the wait was just too long. It was a tremendous testament to the man and teacher he was.

Some of the people who greeted us were some of his first students--from the early 1970s--who said they remember the life lessons he taught them over 40 years ago. “Supportive, interesting, funny, genuinely caring,” one of his first students remembered. “He taught us, but could also laugh along with us, be in on the jokes, and propel students forward. I can only speak for myself, but I never knew that a teacher could be so much to so many.” Other former students told us the only reason they graduated high school was because of his guidance and direction. That was the most common thing we heard, story after story, hour after hour: the purposeful way in which my dad masterfully engaged his students, building deep, personal connections with his kids class after class, year after year.

It seemed like all of them came that night to say goodbye to their favorite teacher.

 

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Leaving a legacy, former students, teachers, administrators, and many more let the Fowler family know how much their teacher meant to them

Leave a lasting legacy

As our family huddled together during those difficult days and tried to figure out how to get by, our dad was able to provide inspiration and support one more time.  The tributes and heartfelt stories from his former students and colleagues flooded the Internet and TV:

“It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice, Mr. Fowler used to say.  As it turns out, he was both!” wrote a former student on my dad’s Facebook page.

“This man walked me through the worst years of my life and always knew how to brighten my day no matter the situation,” wrote another former student.

Inspiration works in many ways.  The very students that he had inspired throughout the years used their stories and experiences to lift up my family.  Until that moment we had not really fully grasped the effect our dad had made on so many lives. 

“There are teachers, and then there was Phillip Fowler. He loved and respected his students,” posted one last Facebook admirer.  “He listened. He inspired.  All of his students, including me, were changed for the better.”

Love and respect your students. Listen to them. Connect with them. Inspire them.

Strive to be just like Phil Fowler.


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Mr. Dennis Fowler is a high school social studies teacher at Lewis Mills High School in Burlington, CT, youth soccer and basketball coach, and motivational speaker. His professional development program is called Connecting With Kids: Ideas to Engage Students and Build Relationships. His blog, called “Dynamic Engagement,” will explore better ways and methods to create a positive classroom climate through motivating actions and activities. You can connect with Dennis Fowler here.

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