A Timely Tribute to the Teachers Who Change Our Lives

Richard Lederer recognizes the original influencers

One of my favorite newspaper corrections reads: “It was incorrectly reported last Friday that this is T-Shirt Appreciation Week. It is actually Teacher Appreciation Week.” Well, this year, Teacher Appreciation Week takes place May 6–May 11.
Teachers change the world one child at a time, yet they are sorely unappreciated. In 1985, the National Education Association and National Parent Teacher Association set aside the first full week in May as a time to honor teachers and show respect for their profession. In fact, every day should be devoted to teacher appreciation and made a time to recognize members of the most unheralded, labor-intensive, multitasking, exhausting, income-challenged, and rewarding of all professions.


During the presidency of Dwight David Eisenhower, James Michener, author of Hawaii, The Source, and other mega-sellers, was invited to a celebrity dinner at the White House. In a letter, Michener declined to attend: “Dear Mr. President: I received your invitation three days after I had agreed to speak a few words at a dinner honoring the wonderful high school teacher who taught me how to write. I know you will not miss me at your dinner, but she might at hers.”


A week later, Michener received a handwritten reply from the understanding Ike: “In his lifetime a man lives under 15 or 16 presidents, but a really fine teacher comes into his life but rarely. Go and speak at your teacher’s dinner.”


A woman attended her 20th high school reunion, where she encountered her freshman-year art teacher. She told him that she had decided to go to college as a result of his inspiration and that she was now an art professor at a large state university.


At the end of the evening’s festivities, the teacher searched out his former student, shook her hand, and said, “Thank you for saying those nice things about my teaching. You’ve made my day.” “You’re welcome,” said the woman as she hugged him. “But let me thank you, sir. You’ve made my life.” Teaching is the highest calling. Parents entrust their most precious treasures to teachers. Almost everybody who is anybody was taught to be somebody by a teacher.

As Steve Lilly puts it, “Teaching is the only profession where you can run into someone who is 45 and they will call you by your name and tell you something you did many years ago that changed their life.” Teachers change lives one lesson at a time. In The Social Animal, David Brooks writes: “Small classes may be better, but it’s better to have a good teacher in a big class than a bad teacher in a small class.” Studies show that great teaching is the most important booster of student achievement—of larger consequence than class size, money spent, the school building, and quality of textbooks.


I believe that an apple lasts a short time in the hands of a teacher, but a bit of wisdom lasts a lifetime in the mind and heart of a student. Teaching is the profession that teaches all the other professions.


I believe that when you speak, your words echo across the room, but when you teach, your words echo across the ages. Or, as Henry Adams, the grandson and great-grandson of presidents, put it: “A teacher affects eternity. No one can tell where his influence stops.”


I believe that teachers deserve the nice things people say about them. Having been an English teacher (an inmate in the house of correction) for 27 years, I’m biased, of course. To George Bernard Shaw’s mean sneer, “He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches,” I would oppose Lee Iacocca’s reverential “In a truly rational world, the best of us would be teachers, and the rest of us would do something else.” Or I would quote Shaw himself: “To me the sole hope of human salvation lies in teaching.”


Blessed be the teachers. Harmonies of scholars, mentors, counselors, coaches, cheerleaders, traffic controllers, judges, sculptors, artists, interior decorators, janitors, nurses, babysitters, comedians, clowns, tightrope walkers, acrobats, and jugglers, they march in the company of secular saints. May their tribe increase and thrive.

Richard Lederer, MAT English and education, PhD linguistics, is the author of more than 50 books on language, history, and humor, available at his website, www.verbivore.com. Please send your questions and comments about language to [email protected]

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