By rough estimation rather than actual calculation—which is how we tend to do many things, I suppose—there are a whole bunch of folks in this country who owe their current condition in the world to education. I would be one of that bunch, another semi-talented and reasonably intelligent person who would be—but for the grace of God and a whole passel of classes—eking out my living just below the poverty line. Or else doing skilled labor and grinding down my body to the point where it would barely last beyond retirement, if that long. I’m several chromosomes short of having a strong entrepreneurial gene and making it rich by virtue of a bright idea and lots of hard work never seemed to work out for me.
Now before anyone starts getting huffy—unless it’s already too late—I know that there are thousands of people out there who have made a good living for themselves and their families by doing skilled labor, cultivating their natural talents and having enough faith and grit to turn a good idea into a good profit. I know it and deeply respect it. What I’m saying is that my quality of life, standard of living and career satisfaction are very dependent upon education. And, in my case, with the exception of two forced years at a small private college, dependent upon public education.
That long stream began with Miss Susan Penick who taught first grade at Trenton (KY) Elementary School. It included Ms. Viola Moore, who smelled of lilac and roses and taught me how to use a Kleenex to soften and blend crayon drawings. Mrs. Sidney Dudley, who taught my sixth grade class and whose personal interest in me began to sow seeds of academic confidence. Mr. Tribble taught our eighth grade classes and coached basketball. Coach Roy Hina at Sturgis (KY) Junior High School not only tolerated me turning into a smart alec when I was thirteen; he also gave me his “Outstanding Algebra Student” award.
At Farmington High School, a series of teachers proved that coming from a tiny school in West Kentucky did not put us at an academic disadvantage when we went to college. Richard Adams taught biology, chemistry and how to play the guitar if you were interested. I was. Mr. Canter taught algebra, geometry and trig, although I didn’t take the trig class, a mistake that ended up changing my career a few years later. Jamie Potts taught Ag classes and ended up having the greatest impact on me personally. His patient persistence launched my speaking career, insisting that I enter another speaking contest as a sophomore when I barely missed winning the one I thought I wanted most.
Throughout my years of college, there were men and women who challenged and inspired me. Leonard Johnson at Freed-Hardeman moved me beyond my background and helped me to love all people. A chemistry teacher who dropped his grading cut by one point so he could give me an “A” after I flubbed a key question on the final, showing that compassion could temper academic rigor. Vernon Shown at Murray State was the reason I decided to focus on teacher education at Ohio State University. G. T. Lilly taught furniture-making and machine maintenance and operation, skills that I still use to this day in many rewarding ways. And many others who taught me many things.
Through all those years, I only remember two teachers who made a negative impression on me. One was an elementary teacher who paddled me for shrugging my shoulders when I didn’t know the answer to a question. I’m not sure what personal demons led her to that practice but she clearly did not like it when a student shrugged his shoulders. It took only two trips to the coatroom to break me of that habit. The other was an education professor who could barely be bothered with the trouble of preparing to teach a masters level course. He read from the textbook when he wasn’t amusing himself with stories that presumably related to something he’d just read from the textbook.
Two out of a hundred? Pretty good odds unless someone is shooting at you.
There is another group of teachers who have and continue to inspire me. People of dedication, determination, talent and passion. Women and men whose days seem to never end: preparing lessons, grading papers and upgrading their courses. Faculty members who care about their students and their students’ lives. Teachers who work not only to improve their courses but also to improve their schools, colleges and communities. Teachers who demand much of their students and even more of themselves. Teachers who persist in the pursuit of excellence in spite of changing culture, changing standards and changing administrations. Teachers who believe in teaching.
Those I taught with at Fulton City High School and Calloway County High School. Other professors at Missouri Western. The staff at Scott County Alternative School. Faculty members at Highland Community College. And now, more every day, the teachers at Cowley College.
Not only have all of these teachers had an enormous and wonderful impact on my life, they continue to profoundly impact the lives of hundreds and thousands of others. By direct measure and by ripple effect, their influence touches multitudes. This is true even of the teachers who have passed on by now.
There is in teaching, something of immortality. When done well and in great love, something divine.