Tuesday is National Teacher Appreciation Day. It’s a time when we thank those who taught us to read, write, add and subtract. It’s a day to recognize those who showed us how to play the clarinet and dissect a frog or where to find Bolivia on a map of South America.
Actually, the next five days are designated as National Teacher Appreciation Week, so let the party begin. (For teachers, the real celebration comes in a few weeks, when that last bell rings.)
Since National Teacher Appreciation Day is so close to the end of the year, I must have assumed it was started by a student trying to butter up his teacher before final exams. But it was Eleanor Roosevelt who persuaded Congress to declare the first National Teacher Appreciation Day in 1953.
It was 40 years ago this month I was hired, straight out of college, as a sports reporter for The Macon Telegraph and News. I fancied myself as a career newspaper guy, but that all changed three years ago this month. It was my own decision.
In three and a half weeks, I will finish my third year of teaching at Stratford Academy. Statistics from the National Education Association report 40 percent of teachers come from another profession, and I’m one of them.
I love working with young people. I love watching the light come on. I love the rhythm of the school year, a wondrous mix of routine and serendipity.
(I also love the chorus of educators who will admit their three favorite things about teaching school are June, July and August.)
I come from a long line of teachers. My grandmother was a second-grade teacher, and my grandfather taught industrial arts and agriculture in Hawkinsville. My mother was a home economics teacher, and my aunt was a counselor. My sister taught high school English. My father-in-law retired after teaching in the inner-city elementary schools in Macon. My wife was preschool paraprofessional and physical education teacher at St. Joseph, Ingleside Methodist and Sonny Carter Elementary.
Even as a full-time columnist at The Telegraph, I worked part-time as a journalism adviser at Mount de Sales and taught one semester as an adjunct journalism professor at Georgia College.
A Sunday School teacher once asked our class to list three people – other than a family member – who had influenced our lives.
“I bet everybody has included at least one teacher,” he said.
Mine was my high school English teacher. In the 10th grade, we read “The Grapes of Wrath” and recited Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales” in Middle English. I don’t remember anything else about that class … except what Mrs. Janet Atwood did for me.
She saw something in me I did not see in myself. When our school was organizing its first newspaper, the Raiders Digest, she signed me up for journalism. I didn’t know it until I heard my name over the intercom during the morning announcements. I had been named sports editor. Two years later, I won first place in sports writing in the Georgia Scholastic Press Association.
She changed my life.
That’s what teachers do. Teach. Encourage.
Griff Ethridge, a colleague whose classroom is 21 steps down the hall from mine, has been a math teacher and administrator for 52 years. He and middle school history teacher Andy Lawson both have been at Stratford for 45 years. They are legends.
Griff grew up in Montezuma. Several years ago, while visiting his hometown, he saw his high school math teacher. He pulled his car over to tell him he had become a math teacher because of him.
Any day can be Teacher Appreciation Day.
Last month, Griff received a letter from a student he taught in the early 1980s. He wrote to thank him for all those lessons – most of which didn’t come from an algebra book.
“They don’t remember the quadratic formula,” Griff said. “They don’t remember what you teach. They remember the experiences, the life skills they learn from you.“
Over the past nine months, I have shown one young man how to tie a tie and another how to get the lint off his clothes using duct tape. A young lady wasn’t sure whether to tell her mother about losing an expensive necklace. My advice? Tell the truth. Always.
On a mantel in my study, I keep a treasured note I received at the end of last year. The student was the school’s valedictorian. She now writes for the Yale Daily News, the oldest daily college newspaper in the country. This summer, she will intern at a newspaper in New Haven, Conn.
“Journalism class has been the highlight of my day for two straight years now,” she wrote. “Thanks for caring so much about what you do.”
Last semester, a first-year foreign exchange student from China was placed in my creative writing class. Her command of the English language was painfully limited. She constantly had to look up the meaning and translation of words. The other students and I had to be patient and kind.
We wrote every day. We took a class “field trip” to the Waffle House to observe the cooks, waitress and customers, then use them as characters in a story.
Her progress was amazing.
“From this class, I (learned) how to enrich my imagination,” she wrote. “Before this class, (it was) difficult to write a long story or paragraph. But now I can write a long story (compared) with before. And I thank my teachers and classmates. They all (encouraged) me to write about something.”
Sometimes you’re the teacher. Sometimes you’re the student. Sometimes you’re both.
Ed Grisamore is grateful for all the teachers who encouraged him during all his trips around the sun. His column appears on Sundays in The Telegraph.