Thomas L. Friedman Op-Ed, "Behind Every Grad ..."

Op-Ed by Thomas L. Friedman. New York Times (Late Edition (East Coast)). New York, N.Y.: Jun 10, 2005. pg. A.21

Copyright New York Times Company, June 10, 2005

You don’t expect to learn much at a graduation ceremony — especially if you’re the commencement speaker. But I learned about a truly important program at the Williams College graduation last Sunday.

Every year, in addition to granting honorary degrees, Williams also honors four high school teachers. But not just any high school teachers. Williams asks the 500 or so members of its senior class to nominate the high school teachers who had a profound impact on their lives. Then each year a committee goes through the roughly 50 student nominations, does its own research with the high schools involved and chooses the four most inspiring teachers.

Each of the four teachers is given $2,000, plus a $1,000 donation to his or her high school [current award is  $3,000 for teachers; $5,000 for schools].  The winners and their families are then flown to Williams, located in the lush Berkshires, and honored as part of the graduation weekend.

On the day before last Sunday’s graduation, all four of the high school teachers, and the students who nominated them, sat on stage at a campuswide event, and the dean of the college talked about how and why each high school teacher had influenced the Williams student, reading from the students’ nominating letters. Later, the four teachers were introduced at a dinner along with the honorary degree recipients.

”Every time we do this, one of the [high school] teachers says to me, ‘This is one of the great weekends of my life,”’ said Williams’s president, Morton Owen Schapiro. ”But it is great for us, too. …

”When you are at a place like Williams and you are able to benefit from these wonderful kids, sometimes you take it for granted. You think we produce these kids. But as faculty members, we should always be reminded that we stand on the shoulders of great high school teachers, we get great material to work with: well educated, well trained, with a thirst for learning.

”So we have been doing our little part to recognize that. … We take these teachers, who are not well compensated and often underappreciated, and give them a great weekend.”

If you think these awards are not important for the teachers receiving them, then you don’t know anything about teachers.

I hurried to get my cap and gown off so I could interview Myra Loris, an international relations teacher at Highland Park High School, north of Chicago, who specializes in preparing kids to take part in the Model U.N. program. She was nominated by Alice Brown, a Williams senior who said in her nominating letter that Ms. Loris was a ”very important teacher, role model and mentor. … Myra has inspired many students, like me, to pursue careers in law, international relations and political advocacy.”

When she got the call from Williams saying she had won, Ms. Loris recalled, ”I just kept saying, ‘Wow.”’ A teacher for 23 years, now nearing retirement, she added, ”I just found it very affirming in a Zenlike way,” an acknowledgement ”that my days have value, my life has had some worth. Public school teachers don’t get that very often,” especially with No Child Left Behind restrictions, which now require teachers to teach to the tests, and push out the window ”all those things that really spark kids imaginations” — like art and music.

Ms. Loris added, ”A lot of my young colleagues were really excited and pleased for me, and everyone wants to hear when I get back what happened — and that is really important, because we are not getting people rushing into education. We send 90 percent of our kids on to college, but if you ask how many of them think of being teachers, you will get six kids. …

”There are great teachers in our high school, outstanding teachers, and they don’t get enough recognition. A lot of kids would not be in college without them.”

We are heading into an age in which jobs are likely to be invented and made obsolete faster and faster. The chances of today’s college kids working in the same jobs for the same companies for their whole careers are about zero. In such an age, the greatest survival skill you can have is the ability to learn how to learn. The best way to learn how to learn is to love to learn, and the best way to love to learn is to have great teachers who inspire.

And the best way to ensure that we have teachers who inspire their students is if we recognize and reward those who clearly have done so.

Imagine if every college in America had a program like Williams’s, and every spring, across the land, thousands of great teachers were acknowledged by the students they inspired? ”No Great Teachers Left Behind.” How about it?

New York Times article