Recently I received an email from my Aunt who lives in Arizona. She likes to forward those emails that everyone gets, but one caught my eye and, upon further investigation, it actually appears to be true. Below is a copy of the email she sent:
Back in September of 2005, on the first day of school, Martha Cothren, a social studies school teacher at Robinson High School in Little Rock , did something not to be forgotten. On the first day of school, with the permission of the school superintendent, the principal and the building supervisor, she removed all of the desks out of her classroom. When the first period kids entered the room they discovered that there were no desks.
‘Ms. Cothren, where’re our desks?’
She replied, ‘You can’t have a desk until you tell me how you earn the right to sit at a desk.’
They thought, ‘Well, maybe it’s our grades.’
‘No,’ she said.
‘Maybe it’s our behavior.’
She told them, ‘No, it’s not even your behavior.’
And so, they came and went, the first period, second period, third period. Still no desks in the classroom. By early afternoon television news crews had started gathering in Ms. Cothren’s classroom to report about this crazy teacher who had taken all the desks out of her room.
The final period of the day came and as the puzzled students found seats on the floor of the deskless classroom, Martha Cothren said, ‘Throughout the day no one has been able to tell me just what he/she has done to earn the right to sit at the desks that are ordinarily found in this classroom. Now I am going to tell you.’
At this point, Martha Cothren went over to the door of her classroom and opened it. Twenty-seven (27) U.S. Veterans, all in uniforms, walked into that classroom, each one carrying a school desk. The Vets began placing the school desks in rows, and then they would walk over and stand alongside the wall. By the time the last soldier had set the final desk in place, those kids started to understand, perhaps for the first time in their lives, just how the right to sit at those desks had been earned..
Martha said, ‘You didn’t earn the right to sit at these desks. These heroes did it for you. They placed the desks here for you. Now, it’s up to you to sit in them. It is your responsibility to learn, to be good students, to be good citizens. They paid the price so that you could have the freedom to get an education. Don’t ever forget it.’
By the way, this is a true story. And this teacher was awarded Teacher of the Year for the state of Arkansas in 2006.
Here’s why I share this story (one that honestly brought tears to my eyes as I read it). The power and influence teachers have over children is absolutely astronomical – teachers can single-handedly chance the course of a child’s life, for good or bad. Recently I was on vacation and was lucky enough to spend a day at Sea World – one of my absolute favorite places. While I was there I kept thinking to myself, “Wow – what a cool place to work!” That thought was immediately followed by, “But I’m not a science person, this isn’t the job for me.”
But that’s the funny part – when I was a kid I absolutely loved science – it was my favorite subject. There was one teacher in particular who made the world come alive for me in a way I had never experienced – everything was hands-on and inquiry-based. We asked questions and solved problems. And we learned – if you asked me to identify the different types of clouds I can still recall laying on my back in the middle of the field during class as we looked up and learned about the types of clouds back in elementary school (much more interesting and engaging that learning it from a textbook).
Then I got to a new school – I was so excited to go to science, but once I got there my excitement quickly faded, in large part because the teachers just didn’t cut it. They were boring, had low (and I mean LOW) expectations, and didn’t challenge me to learn. The same is true in the field of art for me. My wife loves the visual arts (her grandmother was an artist). But me? Not so much. For the very reason I don’t understand it. When we visit art museums I get bored, because I don’t understand what I’m looking at, and I can’t appreciate it. But when I go with her and she explains it to me I enjoy it much more. And guess what – my visual art teachers weren’t always the best, they were unable to connect with me (in all fairness, there was one in particular who did a great job, but by the time I got to him I was already turned off to art so I just didn’t work as hard as I could have for me).
But then there were teachers I absolutely loved – teachers whose class I didn’t want to miss for anything – teachers I worked hard for and invested time in because they did challenge and engage me. Those teachers were ones I signed up to take extra classes with when I could, because I knew my time would be rewarded. Choir, music, photography, English (I still remember my Lit G class to this day!), and history – all classes where the teachers taught me to think for myself, encouraged (and expected) me to ask questions, and helped me find answers. When one of those teachers first said to me, “I could picture you as a teacher one day.” It was the first time that thought had ever crossed my mind, but it’s the thought that stayed with me and helped direct and entire career path that’s brought me to where I am today.
Which gets out back to where I started… For those teachers out there who follow this blog, look for ways to engage and encourage your students – which will often require a dramatic shift in how you think about education (that’s what the story above demonstrates, a dramatic shift!). And for you Vets out there who served and sacrificed so that I and others could go to school, thank you.
Every year I create a list of what I’m thankful for. This year you can believe that teachers (some very specific ones) and Vets (again, some very specific ones) are on my list. Happy Thanksgiving!