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I had the privilege of sharing our tribute, “Teachers: the Real American Heroes” with the 125th audience this week. Had another great response from the group. Next month I’ll share the story with another group in California.
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Sometimes students in the smallest of places have the biggest needs. Children suffering from poverty, neglect and rock-bottom expectations aren’t only found in the ghettos of Harlem and the slums of New York City. Sometimes they’re found in the tiny, 37-student school in Akhiok, Alaska. That’s where Elaine Griffin found them.
Since she was a child growing up in upstate New York, Elaine had been fascinated by the stories and pictures of Alaska The natural beauty and rugged landscape of Alaska appealed to her adventuresome spirit and love for distant cultures. While working as a librarian in New Mexico, she learned of openings at the two-teacher school on Akhiok, she and her husband grabbed for the dream.
When she arrived at the isolated, roadless village on the tundra at the southern tip of the Kodiak Island in 1974, the reality she encountered did not quite match her dream. Though the landscape was incredible and awe-inspiring, she found a group of students plagued by alcoholism, teen pregnancy and suicide. She found a community where students thought their lives began and ended in this desolate outpost, a community of children without dreams.
Undaunted, she and her husband began re-working the school, collaborating with the community and giving her students hope. Under her leadership, the small schools at Akhiok and the nearby village of Chinak set unprecedented records for student achievement and high school graduation. She helped to raise standards and to implement a demanding and culturally-relevant curriculum. A world traveler herself, she opened up kids’ mind to the wonders of the world outside their tiny village. The students from the specks on the map began to dream and, with Mrs. Griffin’s guidance, started to achieve those dreams. Many students even participated in foreign exchange adventures themselves.
“There are many ways a teacher can positively influence learning,” Griffin explained, “including a love for books and a regard for multiple world views. But the most important thing to me is to forge an unbreakable bond with each student based on mutual respect and admiration.”
Spoken like a true Teacher-Hero. This heroism and excellence was recognized by President Clinton when he awarded Elaine Griffin the 1995 National Teacher of the Year. Even seventeen year later, her accomplishments and words resonate. Like great teachers everywhere, Elaine realized how important it is not only to raise standards, but also give students the love, support and dreams to attain those standards.
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Maybe it’s about time that society stopped looking toward the sports world or Hollywood for heroes for our young people. Maybe it’s about time we looked a little closer to home, like maybe the elementary or high school in our own town. In nearly every town, there are unselfish, dedicated individuals who devote untold energy to making sure our children are nurtured, encouraged and prodded to a achieve a better life. Teachers like the remarkable, driven teacher, Jamie Escalante.
Many great teachers possess a special clairvoyance, have the ability to see the future. They can look at a class of disheveled, sloven, apathetic youngsters and see, not the image the youth are trying to project, but what they can become, not what society sees but the successful individuals they can eventually become. Jamie Escalante was the immigrant teacher from Bolivia who, like many great teachers, believed he had a calling to use education to improve students’ lives. Jamie was a remarkable teacher who used math to transform the lives of gang students and other “unteachables” in an East LA high school during the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. In fact, he achieved unprecedented success teaching Advanced Placement calculus to these “troubled” students. His success was so incredible that the national AP board could not believe “those students” could score so well so they assumed they must have cheated. The students were forced to re-take the test and then they scored just as well.
If his story sounds somewhat familiar, you may have recognized it from “Stand and Deliver,” a popular movie more than 20 years ago. Through hard work and commitment, Jamie posted an incredible 25-year record of strengthening academic achievement of students from some of the worst economic and social environments. In fact, he set records for the number of these “unteachable” students who passed one of the most difficult tests in public education. Mr. Escalante’s work was not without recognition. He earned several teaching awards including the Presidential Medal for Excellence in Education, the Andres Bello Prize from the Organization of American States and the Free Spirit Award from the Freedom Forum. He was also inducted into the National Teachers Hall of Fame in 1999.
But his greatest accomplishment can’t be measured by a multiple choice test. Like great teachers everywhere, he believed in his students even when the students didn’t believe in themselves and his conviction, eventually, made the students believe in themselves. It is only appropriate that we take time to recognize Jamie Escalante and all the heroic teachers who support our students everyday.
The Teacher Who Would Give Her Students Her Right Arm
Great teachers are the real American heroes for our youth, not reality TV stars or baseball sluggers. And real examples of these heroes abound in our elementary and high schools and in our colleges. Heroes like an unassuming woman named Jane Smith.
As a breed, great teachers are an extremely generous lot. They provide their students with everything from pencils to lunch money, from Christmas toys they wouldn’t get to winter coats they didn’t have. Did you know that last year the average teacher spent $468 of their own hard-earned money to provide their students with necessities and supplies? Great teachers want their students to have what they need, even if it hurts.
Perhaps there is no better example of this unselfish generosity than Jane Smith, a middle school science teacher from North Carolina. Smith taught things like health, life science and physical science to hormone-driven pre-teens, a pretty tough order. If you don’t know that, you haven’t been in a middle school lately. But this challenge didn’t faze Mrs. Smith.
Filed under: Heroic Teacher Stories | Tags: Columbine, Dave, hero, Sanders, teacher
Hero of Columbine
Great teachers are the real American heroes for our young people, not race car drivers or football players. And real examples of these heroes abound in our elementary and high schools and in our colleges. Heroes like a hard-working, caring man named Dave Sanders.
Dave grew up in rural Illinois and Indiana and went to a small college in Nebraska. A real hick, you might say. In 1974, he moved to the beautiful Rocky Mountains and accepted a position teaching and coaching in the small town of Littleton, Colorado. He taught business courses for 25 years, courses like accounting, business law and keyboarding and his electives were so popular they were usually full, about 150 kids a year. Also, he coached girls’ and boys’ athletics like basketball and softball.
Okay, just hold the yawns and listen to a few comments from his students. “Mr. Sanders knew how to motivate you,” said Susanne Miller, a former student of Sanders. “He always knew just the right things to say.” Another of his students summed it up this way.
“Mr. Sanders believed in me when I didn’t believe in me.”