This column inaugurates my biweekly blog on Edutopia.org. I'm excited to contribute to our site on a regular basis and will be writing about the interesting people and places I encounter. I'll also be discussing some themes and stories from my upcoming book, Education Nation: Six Leading Edges of Innovation in our Schools (Jossey-Bass, July), based upon our recent work at Edutopia, linking to many of our films, articles, and resources.
And what better time to start than during Teacher Appreciation Week! Teachers are underappreciated, underpaid, and under a lot of undeserved pressure. Yet they hold the future of our communities and our nation in their hands. Beyond curriculum, technology, or community partnerships, teachers are the single most important factor in a student's learning. They are the spark that ignites a student's learning, through communicating their passion for their subjects and touching not just students' minds, but their hearts, as well.
Back in 1992, George Lucas stood on the world's stage at the Oscars and received the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for lifetime achievement. It sits in a glass case near our offices. When I point out the award to visiting educators, they still recall that moment, more than 18 years ago, when George thanked his teachers (which, they often note, today's Oscar winners rarely do). Lucas said, "All of us who make motion pictures are teachers, teachers with very loud voices. But we will never match the power of the teacher who is able to whisper in a student's ear."
Everyone has a story about that one favorite teacher who took an interest in them, told them they were smart, or encouraged them to pursue a subject or a sport. I've always been impressed by how even a single remark from one teacher can influence a student's path. Delaine Eastin, one of most distinguished former California state superintendents, used to tell the story of being a shy girl until a drama teacher told her she ought to try out for a play. Eastin learned that she loved performing onstage. She became a riveting speaker, a popular state legislator, and the highest elected education official in the nation-all sparked by one comment from a compassionate teacher.
I had a similar experience. Having warmed both the A and B team benches during an inglorious freshman basketball season, I was casting about for a student activity during the winter of my sophomore year at John Hersey High School, near Chicago. My English teacher, Richard Panagos, was the speech coach and encouraged me to try out. I ended up winning two state championships in after-dinner and extemporaneous speaking and I still enjoy what most people cite as their greatest fear, even beyond snakes: public speaking.
Of course, every week should be Teacher Appreciation Week. So let's make sure that, starting this week, we do more to thank the teachers we had and the teachers our daughters and sons have. Let's resolve to compliment teachers more, through a pat on the back, a handshake, or a card, and express our appreciation for the important national service they're providing. It's a gift that will keep on giving as they pass on that warmth to their students. And it won't require a federal appropriation or a board of education vote.
In a future column, I'll say more about the power of praise and how a kind word from teachers and parents can go a long way to fuel students' self-confidence and persistence. Gratitude and praise should be among our nation's abundant renewable resources for fueling the success of our teachers and students.