American Education Week inspired me to reflect upon my experiences with educators, and share a story about the lasting impact of an educator on a community and myself. Last year, while working as a news reporter, I covered a fundraiser for an elementary school in my hometown; it was just before the May primary election. A gentleman who was running for County Judge Executive was given a brief moment to speak. He talked about growing up in the area, attending the school many years ago, and he specifically named the teachers that had a profound influence on his life. One of the teachers the gentleman named was Rose Garland Cole. She had taught for over 40 years in the county, and had been retired from teaching for 20 years when she died in 2011. Thirteen years after her death, and decades after he had been in her classroom, this man still recalled the impact she had on him. American Education Week was established to honor educators including teachers and support staff, and celebrate public education. Today, I’m honoring the staff at Shwab Elementary, the amazing educators involved in my life, and a teacher named Mrs. Cole.
I was so excited that the Mission List and the National Education Association invited me to attend American Education Week activities in Nashville. The Educator for a Day program allows individuals to spend the day as a teacher; I joined Mrs. Sowienski’s class at Shwab Elementary School. Shwab wasn’t selected because of a stellar academic record or a vast array of academic programs; rather, it is a school that has seen steady improvement. They use an “all hands on deck” approach to cultivate teacher, student, parent, and community involvement. Every ship needs a captain, and Shwab Elementary is blessed with strong leadership.
Upon arrival the Principal, Dr. Natalyn Gibbs, greeted me. Her demeanor was kind but authoritative, and she was very eager to show guests around her school. Shwab is as unique as its students; the walls were filled with beautifully painted murals and artwork created by students. The demographic composition of the Metropolitan Nashville school is nearly 50% Hispanic; flags hanging in the hallway from National Hispanic Heritage Month represented Honduras, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic, which are the nations of origin for the largest groups of Shwab students. 97% of Shwab students qualify for free or reduced lunch; the school is not located in an affluent Nashville community. The school’s motto is straightforward: “failure is not an option.” Dr. Gibbs assessed the needs of the school by surveying staff. She created a dialogue which led to collaboration between teachers, staff, students, parents, community, and leadership. Swab Elementary is a working example of the kind of learning environment the National Education Association seeks to promote.
I was able to spend a few minutes interviewing the President of the National Education Association, Lily Eskelsen Garcia. If I could describe her in one word, it would be impressive. Garcia was once a lunch lady, but she enrolled in college after a teacher at the school where she worked encouraged her to pursue a degree in education. She is passionate about education, and it shows. Garcia believes that every moment can be a teaching moment. She also has very strong views on student testing and hopes to see reforms. Garcia believes that teachers and students are much more than what a test score represents.
The Educator for a Day program isn’t just for parents at the school or individuals interested in education. It is for anyone who recognizes the value in our education system and wants to help. Education is more than an investment in a student; it is an investment in a community. I sat in Mrs. Sowienski’s class trying to remember what it was like to be a third grader. She created a positive learning environment by routinely praising her students for correct answers, asking questions, and good behavior. Her classroom was visually stimulating and inviting.
As a parent I want to do everything possible to foster a positive attitude toward learning in my son, and this includes being actively involved in his education and school. I am grateful for the two wonderful teachers he has had thus far. Mrs. Stacy and Mrs. Gossett have created nurturing learning environments that make him eager to attend school, and that encourage parents to be involved.
In fall 2013, my son started preschool at Dewitt Elementary School. He walked down the same halls and sat in the same classroom where my grandfather, mother, and I, had roamed when we each attended the school. In fact, the room where his preschool class met each day had been a former classroom of Rose Garland Cole. What is so unique about a little boy sitting in the classroom of this former teacher? Mrs. Cole was his great-great-grandmother. She was a teacher when the school opened. She was always actively involved in my education, and taught my grandparents and parents to do likewise. Mrs. Cole was more than an educator; she was an advocate. She graduated from Union College in 1933 and, instead of seeking employment in the city, she took positions in rural settlement schools one of the earliest forms of public education. Mrs. Cole joined the staff at Dewitt Elementary from the day the doors opened until her retirement. She taught thousands of students in the small Appalachian community throughout her lengthy teaching career. The pupils she taught weren’t just students for a term, they were her students for a lifetime. She never stopped educating others, and she remained an active part of our community until her death.
The premise of American Education Week is to remind Americans that we need to create great public schools; it is important to our children and important to our Nation. Creating schools is more than constructing buildings, buying books, and hiring teachers. We each need to be involved, to show that we care, and to contribute to the future of our children and our communities. We shouldn’t need reminders to engage with our community, and especially our schools.
When you think back over the course of your life, which individuals made an impact? Who was most influential to you? Many people have influenced my life, but very few as profoundly as educators. There are very few professions which allow an individual to touch so many people, and create life long experiences. Appreciation for the public education system and educators should span longer than American Education Week, it should be spread out across a lifetime.