While millions of words have been written about the pandemic's impacts on education and the generation of students who had to cope, the few words of a Missoula teacher are a beautiful reminder of how even the difficult life lessons make everyone stronger.

And those lessons from the students, are keeping many teachers in the profession they love.

Sentinel High School teacher Jena Burke remembers the fateful day three years ago when her social studies class learned they were being ordered home on COVID lockdown, with no prospect of when they'd return. She says her freshmen eased the tension by showing her a game on her phone, an example of the resiliency that would change her life.

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"I cannot imagine how each of you has felt the last four years, being at the most emotionally vulnerable time of your lives. All the while living through a pandemic in a deeply divided country. Because of this and the truly heavy times you've grown up in, I have noticed a distinct pain, cynicism, and apathy emerge in many of you, and that concerns me."

Jena was chosen by this Class of 2023, the "pandemic freshmen" to be their speaker at Saturday's Commencement. She used the opportunity to remind them of their hopeful writings from an assignment that first year, reminding them how the world can be changed by the "daily practices of normal people."

Burke used the freshman's writings to remind them of their hopes

"Being cynical is the easy way out. Can I find the bad in nearly every situation? Yes. Is it tempting to jump on that bandwagon? Absolutely.  But the bravest people in history are those who, despite hardships, saw a better future. They saw themselves as capable of making a change rather than critiquing. They dedicated their lives to a cause and acted on it. So in the future, choose carefully what do you care about. Don't let the news or social media flood you with so many issues that you feel apathetic. Think quality over quantity."

The students taught the teachers

But her speech offered a precious glimpse into the dynamic between teacher and student, and how their "strength and courage" over "four difficult years", helped her through serious second thoughts about her career.

"I admire your strength and your courage through these last four difficult years of high school. I appreciate you showing up to school each day with the ability to engage in class, smile, and have a little fun acting like teenagers all the while treating myself and others around you with respect," Burke told the class as her voice broke with emotion.

"For me personally, you're my true north these past two years. I have no doubt that the reason I'm still in teaching is you're graduating class. Your strength of character, humor, creativity, kindness, and notes of gratitude made me feel like continuing teaching was actually a worthwhile endeavor. Thank you for helping me hold on to that sweet feeling that got me into this profession in. The first place being your teacher has been a true honor in my career. And I'm forever grateful to you and feel that however much I was able to teach all of you, you taught me way more. I can speak for the staff at Sentinel High School and when I say it won't be the same without you here, and you'll be greatly missed. I mean it. Thank you guys and congratulations." 

There were approximately 810 high school seniors for Missoula County Public Schools that received their diplomas this past weekend.

LISTEN: Jena Burke's entire Commencement speech

WATCH: Sentinal High School Class of 2023 graduation

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