Thank you Ruth Jones, Judy Turner, Lou Jean Duncan and Jack Black, all former teachers of mine from Frankfort High School still living.
And beloved by me, my eighth-grade English teacher, Margaret Roach and Louise Evans Roach, no relation, except for their incredible abilities to teach a young girl who knew the difference they were making in my life. Thank you all for believing in me and for your encouragement, then and even now.
This week is Teacher Appreciation Week – set aside by the National Parent Teacher Association to recognize the men and women who are responsible for children’s education.
The school year is quickly coming to a close. Soon, children will leave their classrooms with anticipation of fun in the sun.
But before they go, many will pause at their classroom doors and return to hug or thank a teacher who they are sad to leave; perhaps it’s someone who has given them a wonderful experience or inspired them to new heights.
Unfortunately, so many of those teachers I need to thank have also passed away, leaving me sad they are no longer here, considering the vast significance they had on my life – they added so much more to my life besides my intellectual journey.
Believe me, teaching is a yeoman’s task that requires the wisdom of Sampson, the energy of the Ever Ready bunny, and a knowledge of education principles and subject matter that would fill an ocean.
Many say the teaching profession is a mission – a higher calling that forgoes wealth and includes great sacrifice, especially when more time is spent dedicated to classrooms and students than in homes and personal lives.
Tim Moore, a former Kentucky Teacher of the Year, replied to a question concerning his service to the community. “My school and students are my community. I’m not out on Saturday working on a service project as Tim Moore; I have 30 students working on a Saturday so they can know the value of service.
“I’m not teaching the value of civic responsibility, I am leading my students in civic projects as we shadow poll workers, register students in our school to vote, and learn to know the candidates through interviews and attending public forums. Teaching for me involves being there for the students of my school in any and every way I am needed, whether it is helping with lessons they did not understand, showing the importance of cleaning up the school grounds or involving them in a project they select.”
I know his answers because I served on the committee that selected him when I was working at the Kentucky Department of Education. I was in his classroom 20 years ago, in his school, talked to students and ultimately followed his career even years after he was selected.
He didn’t just lecture about history – he led his students through it. He became a Continental soldier, a backwoodsman, Thomas Jefferson and a cast of characters that allowed his students to have interactive conversations.
A great loss
Renowned Kentucky educator and author Jesse Stuart once said, “I am firm in my belief that a teacher lives on and on through his students. Good teaching is forever and the teacher is immortal.”
This quote reeled through my mind as I mourned the recent passing of my former colleague, Brenda Scruggs, 56, whose vitality, enthusiasm and passion for teaching was infectious.
With the same zeal for life she exemplified in her teaching, she entered a six-year battle with breast cancer and subsequent other cancers, returning many times for treatment in Houston until recently when the doctors said they could do no more.
I had the opportunity to observe Brenda from the time she began her career at Elkhorn Junior High before the new building for Elkhorn Middle School was built.
Talk about the eager beaver anxious to get into her own classroom and work with children. When Western Hills High School opened in the fall of 1980, she and I both chose to go to the new school. And as she had at EJHS, she brought her “can-do and want-to” attitude with her.
Ask her former students, other teachers and administrators who had the opportunity to either be in her classroom or work with her.
Students and friends followed her journey through these last few years and were amazed at how positive she remained. The smile she was known for was even evident when she posted a picture from Houston after her first surgery. Brenda had tubes running in and out of her body and her hair was gone. But she was smiling.
Hundreds of messages flooded Facebook at the news of her passing, thanking her for the difference she made in lives as a teacher, mentor, cheerleading sponsor, friend and fellow classroom teacher.
“You were my teacher in middle school at Elkhorn Junior High and I remember your beautiful smile! My home life at that time was very difficult and to come into school and be treated with such kindness and warmth was a true blessing. I had three daughters of my own and I know you had my youngest daughter and I was so overjoyed that my child was able to experience having you as an influence in her life,” Debbie Abrams Moore wrote on Brenda’s Facebook page.
Ryan Angle Hale, a former WHHS student, wrote, “You have done so much for this school and this community. I think about the countless lives you touched through teaching, through coaching, through your kindness and warmth and humor. You are the epitome of what a teacher should be. You came early. You stayed late. You worked hard to make sure that each individual student had the attention he or she needed and deserved. More so, you are the model of what a human being should be. You always treated everyone so special.”
Though no longer physically with us, her life’s work and influence survives; she has become immortal just as Stuart predicted. Brenda Scruggs made a difference, set an example for others, whether she was teaching AP Calculus, coaching her cheerleaders, singing in her church choir or fighting a horrific disease.
They give us our smarts
Last week I asked my great-nephew Eli, 7, how he got so smart.
“School,” he quickly replied.
“Well, I went to school and my teacher made me smart,” he responded.
I couldn’t give up at this point. “How did that happen?”
“She teaches us about things we don’t know. Then she asks us questions to see if we do know. When I read for her, she tells me I am doing a good job. When I turn in my math, she says I am smart.
“Do you get it now?” he asked as though he thought I was dumb.
We all get it. We’ve had those teachers, and our memories immediately take us to those classrooms where we were exalted to new heights, taught to believe in ourselves, made to believe we were special and capable and had our minds opened to new ideas and concepts.
Many will tell you that what constitutes a good teacher may be considered intrinsic, something that comes from within and cannot be held to any measure. It’s what makes evaluation of a teacher so difficult; styles and techniques vary; the composition of a classroom varies from the reluctant learner to the overachiever and when it all comes down to a test as a predictor, that in itself is fraught with pitfalls.
Former Franklin County High School Spanish teacher Rosemary Weddington recently completed her 60th year of teaching. Dr. Weddington now teaches Spanish to students at Kentucky State University.
In a conversation, I asked her if she is a different teacher today than when she began.
“I am,” she said.
“It used to be about covering the textbook, making sure it was completed. Now I am more concerned about the student’s progress in comprehending the language than I am about the amount of text that is covered.”
Weddington loves teaching. She says she can’t imagine doing anything else. She plans to continue as long as she has the stamina.
An award-winning teacher herself, she says the desire will always be there, as well as her own love of learning. At 83, she is currently pursuing a second doctorate.
“I love learning as much as I love teaching,” she said.
“Therein, my dear Mr. Watson lies the answer.” That’s what Sherlock Holmes would say. I agree.
Show me a good teacher and I will show you someone who still enjoys learning as much as teaching. She enjoys the journey with the students, and that enjoyment and enlightenment transfers to students.
The next generation
I have a former student who has had a couple of careers since she graduated from college. Recently, she chose to return to school to be a teacher. It is what she should have done in the first place. She is going to be a natural and the students to come of Kristy Taylor will find the joy of learning in her classroom.
In today’s society, those often credited with creating the investment bankers, doctors, lawyers and sports figures are far down the economic totem poll. Many teachers take jobs in their brief summer vacations to supplement their incomes.
While we invest in buildings, technology and administrative salaries, teachers have gone without substantive pay raises for many years now. I’ve never seen a central office chastised for poor student performance, but in so many systems two teachers could be hired for the price of a director of pupil personnel.
Teachers, especially in elementary and middle schools, have been serving the needs of the whole child for years. They know who is hungry, lacks a warm coat or has no bed to sleep in. These societal issues did not just come upon us; they’ve always been part of children’s school life that has to be dealt with, often before any learning can occur.
I remember my elementary teachers sharing their packed lunches with students who had none. I remember teachers who appealed to counselors and others to provide a warm coat. And I remember teachers who made home visits to better understand the environment of those children.
The job is so much more than standing armed with knowledge and ability before a classroom of students. It is as a student wrote of Brenda, “Thanks Ms. Scruggs for encouraging me and knowing that I could achieve what I wanted before I knew that I could!”
To all those young college graduates who have chosen the teaching profession, may you know the blessings and rewards of the classroom and never forget every day presents an opportunity to make a difference in a child’s life. And maybe, just maybe, when the year ends, you too will get the gift of a thank you.