For one thing, Teacher Recognition Day — as the single day dedicated to teachers used to be called – coincided with my first big success at school. I was in the third grade and my teacher was Mrs. Briggs, a large, smiley, cherubic woman who clearly loved her students, their parents – and teaching! She gave us an assignment to write something about Teacher Recognition Day. I whipped up a poem and I could see from Mrs. Briggs’s beaming face that it was a winner. She had me share it with the class, then she shared it with the other teachers – and it was even published in the school newspaper! It’s not at all surprising that my double ambition to be a teacher and a writer began back in the third grade.
Shortly after my poetry success, my father went back to school to become a teacher. He eventually landed a job teaching fourth grade in a school with many disadvantaged children. A number of his students were immigrants and knew very little English. I was fascinated as we sat at the dinner table and he told us how, for example, he had taught Pedro how to say, “I have to go to the bathroom,” in English.
He then proceeded to teach my brother and me how to say it in Spanish. Later as a principal, he was instrumental in bringing a breakfast program into his school because he realized early on that kids couldn’t learn if they were hungry.
My father, as a teacher and as a principal, was my inspiration not only for my own career in education, but for my doctoral dissertation. It studied how caring principals promote a culture that enables children to succeed.
As a lover of current events, politics, and history, I got my Master’s Degree in teaching social studies from Columbia Teachers College. The department faculty there was inspirational and truly excited about teaching. We learned about the inquiry method – where students were given the tools to be social scientists and construct their own knowledge from original sources. Sound familiar? Years later, this same method was dubbed DBQ – Dated Based Questions. I couldn’t wait to try out all the wonderful things my teachers at TC taught me.
I hit the jackpot when I was hired to teach American History and Government at Schreiber High School in Port Washington, NY. My colleagues were on the cutting edge of educational theory and practice; together we brainstormed, discussed, and created our own teaching materials. It was wonderful to teach social studies. But we all knew that we weren’t just teaching a subject; we were teaching young people. To be successful, we needed to know where our students were coming from, and we made it our business to find out. We hung out with students during our free periods, we talked to other teachers and guidance counselors, and we were in touch with parents. The administrators were visible and accessible to students and staff. In other words, we cared about kids.
In my dissertation, I studied principals who promoted an ethos of caring in their schools – principals who consistently went above and beyond to meet the needs of children, and to meet the needs of teachers and parents as well. Not surprisingly, these principals built faculties of caring teachers.
Later, as an administrator, I verified time and again the conclusions of my dissertation. What matters most in schools is a caring environment, which addresses the needs of every child. Those are the schools where students are most successful. All of the current emphasis on standardized testing totally misses the mark. Teachers need to be able to meet the varying needs of their students, and exercise their creativity, judgment, and professional expertise. There is not a magic bullet for education that can be imposed from the outside. Caring teachers, led by caring principals, have been and continue to be the solution.
More than a half-century later, I still remember the poem that I wrote for Teacher Recognition Day, and I am still writing and learning! Thank you to all my teachers and my colleagues!
Teacher Recognition Day
Is for us to recognize,
Our teachers, who in the United States
Are so highly prized.
All the teachers deserve this day
Not just a few
So my dear teachers
May God bless each one of you.