Great Teachers Create Great Lives

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September has always meant school time for me. Back in the day we never returned until after Labor Day but somehow with fewer days spent in the classroom we still managed to learn enough to get through college and become fairly competent adults. I suppose that there is more history to cover and a great deal more science and mathematics to be learned than what we studied back in the fifties and sixties so having some extra time somewhat makes sense. I even suspect that if parents had their way the students would only be off for Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, spring break and a couple of weeks in the summer. Teaching takes far more time than it once did and even when the teachers are supposedly resting in the summer most of them take coursework to retain their certification or learn about new teaching methods. They are lucky if they get a month that is not dedicated to improving their professional skills or planning for the coming school year. Sadly their salaries have not risen proportionately with the extra time that they dedicate to their jobs. 

I have found that most teachers would enjoy better benefits and compensation but the lack of those things does not deter them from following their vocations. When we speak of heroic essential workers we tend to forget our teachers. I see applause for firefighters, police officers and medical workers all of the time but not so much for teachers. I see people taking donuts to police stations, cookies to hospitals, gifts to fire stations but somehow teachers are often left from such generous outpourings of gratitude. To a very large extent we take our educators for granted even though they are grossly underpaid given their level of education and the true amount of work they pour into their professions. Few people understand that for every eight to ten hours of a school day a teacher spends at least half again as many hours planning lessons, gathering supplies, and grading papers and exams. With the advent of remote learning the process is even more time consuming and complex. 

We act as though there is nothing to the art and science of teaching, that it is something virtually anyone can do. In truth the subtleties of good education are often difficult to discern but watching a maestro of the classroom is akin to listening to Mozart. When someone who is unskilled or untrained attempts to teach the difference is palatable. As a Dean of Faculty I have been privileged to see the very best but also alarmed when watching the incompetent. Luckily I worked in a system that allowed the principal and I to send the worst of the lot on their way. 

We have bad actors in every profession, every group. Sadly we also have systems that protect them. It would be absurd to condemn everyone who is a police officer, priest or teacher because a few in the ranks do not belong. It is important that we have a way of disciplining, retraining or releasing individuals who simply cannot do a sufficiently good job regardless of the occupation. It is far easier to fire an accountant who cooks the books, an engineer who makes critical mistakes than it is to keep our public systems free of incompetence but we still must protect the good honest workers of every profession by ridding ourselves of anyone who would besmirch the good name of the organization. 

Someone suggested that we should all concentrate on what is good about any group that is under siege these days. Since teachers are often criticized I plan to spend much of September telling the stories of some of the great ones that I have encountered. I will begin today with a chemistry teacher named Mrs. Weston who inspired both of my daughters at South Houston High School, but particularly my youngest, Catherine, who was shy and unsure of herself when she walked through the halls of that school. 

Mrs. Weston was a brilliant woman who might have found work in the Houston Medical Center or one of the many chemical plants that dot the Houston landscape. She would have garnered much respect with her knowledge of chemistry and her salary would no doubt have been much higher than the one she received from teaching, but those were not things that impressed her. She was devoted to her students and she changed lives for many years. 

Catherine was such a quiet young lady that she was oftentimes overlooked by her teachers but she had an uncanny interest in science of all varieties. During her years in school science was her favorite subject and that interest only increased when she went to high school. Her enthusiasm went through the roof in Mrs. Weston’s class and she studied the concepts and formulas with delight all the while speaking of her teacher in reverential terms. That class was the one place where she felt totally comfortable and able to be herself. 

One evening I received a call from Mrs. Weston. I was a bit nervous when I heard her voice because I feared that there was some kind of problem. Instead she told me how much she enjoyed having Catherine in her class. Furthermore she insisted that she considered Catherine to be among her all time top five chemistry students. I was overwhelmed with joy upon  hearing this news. I was well aware of the many outstanding pupils Mrs. Weston had taught and I deemed it a great honor for her to think so highly of Catherine. What I also knew was that this teacher had managed to pull out the very best from my daughter. She had lit a fire of enthusiasm and recognized the brilliance of Catherine that had all too often been overlooked during her time in school. Eventually Catherine would attend Texas A&M University become an environmental consultant and later a nurse. She would use notes from Mrs. Weston for her college classes.

This is what gifted teachers do. They find the excellence in their students and cultivate it. They bring excitement to every lesson. They inspire and they love. Catherine and I will always appreciate Mrs. Weston both for her range of knowledge and her capacity to motivate and care. Her story has a special place in our hearts. Mrs. Weston demonstrated how great teachers help to create great lives.

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