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Reflections From Faith and History

Teacher Appreciation Week -by Jeff Olson

The American tradition of honoring teachers has a long history, dating back 75 years ago to 1944 and it has seen several changes since. In 1985 the National Parent Teacher Association (PTA) established Teacher Appreciation Week as the first full week of May.

The National Education Association (NEA) Representative Assembly then voted to make Tuesday of that week National Teacher Day. This year it is Tuesday, May 7.

All of us can remember at least some of our teachers, especially those who made a real difference in our lives. I certainly can. One of those, Mr. Bill Carmack (my high school American History teacher), I’ve exclusively written about in this column.   

Those teachers who made the most positive impact in my life weren’t necessarily the ones who taught my favorite subjects, but I knew they cared and were genuinely interested in me as a person as well as a student. As someone once said, students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

My best teachers never took pride in having a hard class or a popular class but were most importantly committed to inspire and maximize their students’ potential for learning.

If I had difficulty grasping some aspect of a subject, that teacher would try to find another way to explain it. He or she believed in the maxim that if a child can’t learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way he/she can learn.

In Albert Einstein’s words, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

I can still remember those teacher’s names and faces and how they in their own way helped to mentor and mold me. They partnered with my parents and together worked hard in not only teaching me various subjects but also giving me encouragement, confidence, purpose and direction for using that knowledge.

As I read somewhere, “Teaching kids to count is fine, but teaching them what counts is best.” As parents, my wife and I have been very thankful for our teachers in the Mena Public Schools who possessed such qualities and made such a positive difference in our own children’s lives.

Education in America has a strong Christian heritage anchored in the Bible, which was the basis and foundation (and chief textbook) for public education in early America.   

The young were therefore equipped with the morals, values and discipline needed to constructively contribute to the civil/social order and apply their knowledge in such a way that its purpose and fruits would extend well beyond the temporal needs of attaining a livelihood and material success.

The primary goal of education was not to create equity nor self-esteem and not even to produce a specific kind or variety of workforce, but to instill piety and cultivate the student’s own intellect and imagination and to develop his or her character for future responsibilities as parents, citizens and leaders. In Abraham Lincoln’s words, “the philosophy of the school room in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next.”

Even if we succeed in teaching our young the “Three Rs” (reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic) but fail to give them a moral compass for applying these, then we risk leaving them vulnerable to those who could and would place them in intellectual and spiritual servitude. Literacy, in its most complete meaning and expression, is beyond just academics and skills; it is a doorway to freedom and a primary means to preserve it.

Our teachers face formidable challenges every day in the classroom and do so in an ever so changing culture and with some parents and a mammoth system which are not always supportive of them. However, as graduation approaches, teachers can take satisfaction and pride in knowing that their role in this milestone event was central and consequential and one that will come to fruition in a multitude of positive ways in the years to come.

Let us take this opportunity to thank teachers in our schools and colleges for their time and commitment in investing in today’s generation and in those of tomorrow. Also, may we remember with gratitude those of our teachers who have passed on and who helped shape us into what we’ve become and what our lives have counted for.

Because motion pictures can be very effective in conveying realities, ideas and ideals in the human experience, I must close with mentioning several excellent pictures which celebrate teachers and education: Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939), Remember the Day (1941), and Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995).

The first of these was released 80 years ago this month. All are inspiring and may rouse some good memories for you as they have for me.

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