Teacher appreciation week 2016 conjures many strong English teachers that have made a terrific difference in lives of people close to me. I think foremost to my own children’s teachers, in high school and earlier. Susie Thetard, Diane Walker, Claire Lamonica, Bob Neuleib, and Kathy Clesson, each at various times NCTE members, taught my three kids extraordinarily well, in both the practical and the creative arts of language. They inspired writing as well as reading, speech and theatre as well as classroom English. Like so many good teachers I know, they’ve followed with keen interest what my kids have been up to well after graduation. Normal, Illinois, did well.
I think, too, on my own English teachers, now decades ago. Mr. Leahy in 7th grade, in a small town Iowa junior high, had us do a radio play. I performed as a ghost. Mrs. Smith, in high school, was the first person to comment generously on my creative writing. Whether she saw quality in the prose or poetry or whether she simply sensed a boy who liked words, she helped me publish in the local paper. Two years ago I had a chance to meet my eighth grade teacher once again, Mrs. Scherer, now in her 80s, and she congratulated me on being elected president of NCTE. That’s a humbling thing.
So many of my college professors were active in NCTE, and they introduced me to the professional world of teaching, a world in which smart people knew things about what worked and why—and also knew what we didn’t know. I got the important sense early on that if you were going to be an English teacher, you needed to be in concert and community with other English teachers. Carl Klaus, Louise B. Kelly, and Jix Lloyd-Jones (a past NCTE president) were all foundational.
I know I’m looking back, but partly that’s to remind all of us about the long sweep forward of good teachers, whose efforts ripple gently into the future, now and then washing up on a late shore of realization and appreciation. When I talk with NCTE members today, whether they’re teaching in a university or in a grade school, I’m struck by the new constraints they face. Folks who haven’t been in a classroom since they were themselves students certainly aren’t shy about the “common sense” wisdom they have regarding literacy and assessment. I so appreciate those teachers—and they are legion—who put up with everything from well-intentioned bad advice to outright ignorant criticism, finding ways to teach their students what their professional expertise compels them to do. That might even include helping a nerdy sophomore boy write a short story when the conventional wisdom “knows” that doing so is a waste of time.