During the time I served as chancellor of the University of Tennessee at Martin, “A Nation at Risk” – an acclaimed national study report that launched k-12 reform efforts that continue to this day – had become the darling of the media and the reference point of choice for public school critics. Regrettably, the reform effort spawned an ugly round of teacher bashing, which troubled me greatly.
As chancellor of a relatively small university campus in rural West Tennessee, I recognized that there was very little my staff and I could do to address the issue of teacher bashing. At the same time, we were not content to sit on the sidelines. Our solution was to launch a symbolic campaign designed to uplift the image of teachers.
“Making Teachers Proud Again” became the slogan of our campaign. Buttons and bumper stickers were purchased. Press releases were written and distributed. To some observers, the initiative seemed somewhat hokey, and had the effort gone no further, the criticism would have been justified.
But such was not the case. The centerpiece of the campaign was the launching of an annual recognition banquet to honor the region’s outstanding classroom teachers. To identify the region’s best teachers, we asked all incoming freshmen to nominate the teachers who had made the greatest difference in their lives. From those nominations, a screening committee of UT Martin faculty and staff members selected forty-six teachers to receive recognition in the first year.
I wrote each one of the forty-six teachers, notifying them of their selection, inviting them to an awards dinner at the chancellor’s residence, and advising them that they would be recognized at halftime at the university’s basketball game later that evening. It was to be a full evening but not anything unusual for my wife and me. We typically hosted similar events three or four nights a week, year after year.
As events unfolded, however, it quickly became obvious that this was not to be just another night at the chancellor’s residence. As a starter, I found myself seated next to a teacher from a small rural school in a nearby county who told me a story I shall never forget.
We had barely settled in our seats when she shared with me an amazing story that convinced me once and for all time of the importance of using the power of a leadership position to make a difference in the lives of other people.
The teacher told me that when she received my letter advising of her selection and inviting her to campus for recognition, she thought it was a fraud. She immediately took the letter to the principal’s office to determine whether the UT Martin stationery and my signature were legitimate. When asked why she questioned the validity of the letter, she responded with words that will forever stick in my mind.
With strong emotion and more than a few tears, she said, “I have been teaching for twenty-six years in the same school, and during all this time, no one in authority – the principal, superintendent, school board members, PTA president, mayor, or county executive – ever told me I was doing a good job. I always thought I was a pretty good teacher, but you are the first person in authority who has ever validated my belief. I can’t tell you how much this recognition means to me.”
In the several days that followed the event, my wife and I received thank you notes, most of them handwritten, from every one of the forty-six teachers who had attended. What makes that level of response stand out in our memory is the fact that, over the past four decades, we have hosted literally thousands of events at our home. Typically, an event that attracted forty to fifty people would result in an average of five thank you notes; ten was the second highest number of responses we have ever received.
Clearly, the teacher event struck a responsive chord. It convinced me that there are literally thousands of faceless individuals in all professions who quietly go about their duties and responsibilities deprived of the recognition they deserve.
Any of us can make a difference in this regard. May we all remember to recognize those around us every day who are doing their jobs to the best of their ability. It will lift their spirits, and yours, too!
-adapted from Journal of a Fast Track Life © 2018 Charles E. Smith. All rights reserved. Top photo courtesy of Steve Buissinne at pixabay.com