Teachers: fire-starters of the future

By SAM TERRY
Managing Editor
Jobe Publishing Inc.

We’re well into the tradition-filled “merry month of May” – the Derby is in the past, Mother’s Day is hours away, graduation is fast-approaching, and Memorial Day is on the horizon. Add one more tradition to the list – Teacher Appreciation Week – a time to recall the influence of teachers past and present.

William Butler Yeats wrote, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” No matter who you are, there is probably a teacher who influenced what you’ve become and what your mark on the world will be.

There’s no means of measuring the influence of teacher. Their inspiration touches all levels of humanity – from the most skilled surgeon or dedicated scientist, the gifted writer, the farmer who produces our food and tends to our land or the parent who successfully rears a child. Few professions can boast of wielding such power while few teachers would consider themselves powerful.

The art of teaching continues to evolve just as it has for centuries and yet, teachers are resilient and ready to take up the challenge of finding a way to be more effective. In my lifetime teachers have worked their way through, mastered, endured, and in some cases overcome, initiatives like “new math,” the use of phonics to teach reading and writing, team teaching, education reform, writing portfolios, the demise of red grade books to computerized record-keeping, ever-changing education standards, emphasis on STEM, and the list could continue for pages.

Sadly, in recent decades the art of education has been maligned by notions that “if you can’t do anything else, you can always teach,” or that teaching is a cushy job with good benefits. Like any other profession, education has a few slackers who become the proverbial bad apple in the bushel. Meanwhile, the most effective educators constantly move forward in their efforts to light a fire in their students.

John Steinbeck said he came to believe “a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists.” He went on to suggest that teaching might be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit. In other words, the fire-starters of humanity.

In today’s world, students may have dozens of teachers, each having an impact on their lives and thus, their future. While many had an impact on me, there are a few who come to mind as being my fire-starters.

Edith Bastin, my First Grade teacher, fanned the flames of my love of reading and writing. Vesta Dennison would rank among the most influential. In Second Grade she aided me in mastering the art of cursive writing with the exception of the capital letter Q – I missed school that day and I’ve been trying to get my Q’s perfected ever since. My other Second Grade teacher, Puerto Rico native Doris Davis, was ahead of her time in 1970 when she introduced us to Spanish and made us feel quite sophisticated and worldly.

Mary Lou Cooper’s Third Grade classroom was a wonderland of learning. She had her own classroom routine – in addition to the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag, she read us a passage from the Bible, there was a poem each day, and we were introduced to the story of a famous American daily. Another Mrs. Cooper – Mary Evelyn – was the school librarian who loved to talk about books and further encouraged reading. When new books arrived, she would call me to her office and let me be the first to check out her newest volumes.

When Emily Newberry taught typewriting in Junior High we had no idea that learning to type would be essential to using computers and phones decades later. All these years later, I still recall and use her lessons about spaces following punctuation and how words and paragraphs should look on a page. Her sister-in-law, Carrie W. Newberry, instilled a love of history, the goal of becoming a good citizen, and understanding our government.

Sybil Doty and I followed one another from one school to the next and at each stop she encouraged me in public speaking. Not a Kentucky native, she battled for proper enunciation coming from her students’ mouths. Her pet-peeve was the Barren County dialect that refers to “Carl Hill” rather than Coral Hill in our county.

Mrs. Doty’s counterpart, Judith Zimmerman, was a whirlwind of good grammar and a bubbling fountain of literature. She insisted that it was important to know what the words in a sentence do and thus, we diagrammed sentences. She taught me how effective the right word in the right place could be to convey a thought or fact while being interesting for the reader.

Helen Russell will always hold a prominent spot in my list of influential fire-starters. She recognized my interest in history and pushed me (and her other students, too) to truly learn it – to immerse myself in it, to dig a little deeper when doing research, and to put it into context. Her insistence that I learn to write a proper research paper was perhaps the most valuable college preparation one could have.

My eternal thanks to each of these teachers and to those unnamed.

So, how about your fire-starters? You know who they are. If they are still among us, take a moment this week to let them how they were your fire-starters. If your special teachers are no longer here, share their legacy with those close to you, after all, they helped to make you.

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