Sunday, May 3, 2015

A High School Teacher Who Influenced Me

In honor of teacher appreciation week, May 4-8, I am writing about one of my high school teachers. His involvement during my years at Hitchcock High School in South Dakota helped shape who I am today.

Frank Podraza was our principal and high school football coach. He did not hand out compliments. You earned them. And I guess I kind of liked that about him.

Frank Podraza: a South Dakota Hall of Fame coach

A few years ago, Coach Podraza was honored into the South Dakota Hall of Fame. I warned him this post was coming, and he allowed me to swipe some pictures off of his Facebook page to include in this post, so thank you to those who snapped these pictures.

My senior year at the 281 Conference Mid-Season Basketball tourney, we struggled an entire game that should have been an easy win, but they shut down our two big scorers, post Shari Hofer (not a relative of mine—there are lots of Hofers in South Dakota) and our point guard, Ann Westall.

I found success on the wing that night and made some shots. I'd never made 10 points in a real game in my life—and they were all field goals from the wing, 12-15 feet out. I was pretty proud of myself. I even sunk the basket that tied it up. We won then in overtime.

The next day at school, I expected Mr. Podraza to say something like, "You finally hit some buckets, Mel. Nice game."

sittin' in the halls of HHS: Mr. Podraza, his '80s look
But no. That is not the sort of thing he would say. No way.

Why? Because I had also had a shot at the buzzer at the end of regulation and missed it. And, according to him, I should have nailed that one too.

I had no come back. I remember being miffed only momentarily by his commentbecause I knew he was right.

Now if you're a parent thinking, he was a jerk. Don't. He wasn't. If you're a youngster thinking, he's mean. Don't. He's wasn't.

What he stated was fact. That's Mr. Podraza. Always pushing. Demanding your best. And when you did your best, he expected continued improvement after that. He did it in a way that wasn't demanding or demeaning. And that takes tact, discipline, and a sense of humor.

Coach Podraza

As a teacher, Mr. Podraza, stretched me to do Algebra I and Algebra II and computers—back when they just came into the classroom. Read about my memories of his computer class by clicking here.

He put up with all my opinions, readily admitted a mishap, an error, or a misunderstanding. He didn't mind talking things through. He had a great sense of humor and a knack for making me laugh at myself because he laughed at himself too. The local pool hall, which he ran, was dubbed The Polish Inn.

Frank Podraza

I recall another time he put me in my place. We were upstairs by the banisters outside the business room. I had the habit of saying I couldn't do something, so one time Coach said something like, "Why do you always say that, Mel? Do you want someone to compliment you or beg you to do it? You're going to do it anyway, you know." Again, I had no comeback.

I'm known for getting on my soap box. Yes, even back then, but Mr. Podraza had a way of talking me down. Yet he made me feel important, that my ideas mattered, and that I was intelligent and capable. I had the guts to write the essay that earned my spot to represent our school at South Dakota Girls' State in 1983. I had the confidence to be the high school newspaper editor that lead me to do the same in college.

The encouragement he gave me during those high school years continues to impact me today—especially when I venture into something new. When uncertainty hits, I hear his words.

Mr. Podraza's note in my senior memory book
When it came time for my high school graduation party, Mr. Podraza came all the way out to our farm. (Like Mr. Wiens did so I wouldn't quit band. Read about that here). Driving 12 miles out in the country was a big deal back in the day.

But Frank Podraza attended because he cared about me. And I wasn't even one of his football players.

Thank you, Coach, for believing in me all those years ago when I was a know-it-all high school girl.

Do you recall comments from a teacher that made a positive impact on your life? What were you taught besides the content of the class? Any push you to do something you thought you could never do?


  1. I can't think of any comments. But I had a kindergarten teacher that went beyond her call of duty. My mom told me that when she went to work when I was in kindergarten, and my dad would be home sleeping (he worked nights) ... my teacher would watch me, only me, a little longer until mom could get there to pick me up. I don't remember it. But I do remember losing a tooth in her class, and her being so loving to me. I'll always remember her sweet face.

    1. Precious memory, Shelli. I remember kindergarten clearly, but not much about first grade. Maybe I was lost at learning to read, I don't know. Ha.

  2. This is my favorite post you have written! Well said.

    1. Thanks, Jill. I hope every kid has a Mr. Podraza in his life. Maybe we, as teachers too, are that for a couple of them.

  3. I had many teachers who influenced me, but the earliest one was my first grade teacher, Mrs. Ballard. She was stern and old and I was afraid of her and didn't want to go to school. Sometime during the year she won me over and became my favorite. I'm sure it's because she cared. I loved her so much that I went back to help her after school was out, sorting textbooks. She paid me a quarter, which to a 6 year old in the '60's was a lot. I continued to help her for another year or two. Teachers, don't ever underestimate the power of your caring for your students. What an honor to be given such a role in the lives of so many.

    1. That's a neat story about 1st grade, Kim. I can relate to being scared of stern and old teachers—at least what I thought was old at the time. One of them did actually have a great sense of humor now that I look back on it. Thanks for sharing!