Sunday, January 22, 2012

Teaching: The most important job in America

Yet again, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof knocks one out of the ballpark. This time, it's the discovery of a successful businessman named Olly Neal, who was well on his way to becoming a juvenile delinquent with no future in the segregated South, but whose meanness to a teacher was repaid with a secret favor that led to Neal's own success and the success of his own children.

The only regrettable note in the story is that Neal's English teacher, Mildred Grady -- a women he had tormented and who was the greatest catalyst in his life -- is no longer alive to see her legacy memorialized in the New York Times.

THIS is the power of a single great teacher, illustrated:

In the late 1950s, Olly Neal was a poor black kid with an attitude. He was one of 13 brothers and sisters in a house with no electricity, and his father was a farmer with a second-grade education. Neal attended a small school for black children — this was in the segregated South — and was always mouthing off. He remembers reducing his English teacher, Mildred Grady, to tears.

“I was not a nice kid,” he recalls. “I had a reputation. I was the only one who made her cry.”

Neal adds: “She would have had good reason to say, ‘this boy is incorrigible.’ ”

A regular shoplifter back then, Neal was caught stealing from the store where he worked part time. He seemed headed for a life in trouble.
One day in 1957, in the fall of his senior year, Neal cut...class and wandered in the library, set up by Grady, the English teacher whom he had tormented. Neal wasn’t a reader, but he spotted a book with a risqué cover of a sexy woman.

Called “The Treasure of Pleasant Valley,” it was by Frank Yerby, a black author, and it looked appealing. Neal says he thought of checking it out, but he didn’t want word to get out to any of his classmates that he was reading a novel. That would have been humiliating.

“So I stole it.”

Neal tucked the book under his jacket and took it home — and loved it. After finishing the book, he sneaked it back into the library. And there, on the shelf, he noticed another novel by Yerby. He stole that one as well.

This book was also terrific. And, to Neal’s surprise, when he returned it to the shelf after finishing it, he found yet another by Yerby.

Four times this happened, and he caught the book bug. “Reading got to be a thing I liked,” he says. His trajectory changed, and he later graduated to harder novels, including those by Albert Camus, and he turned to newspapers and magazines as well. He went to college and later to law school.

In 1991, Neal was appointed the first black district prosecuting attorney in Arkansas. A few years later, he became a judge, and then an appellate court judge.

But there’s more.

At a high school reunion, Grady stunned Neal by confiding to him that she had spotted him stealing that first book. Her impulse was to confront him, but then, in a flash of understanding, she realized his embarrassment at being seen checking out a book.

So Grady kept quiet. The next Saturday, she told him, she drove 70 miles to Memphis to search the bookshops for another novel by Yerby. Finally, she found one, bought it and put it on the library bookshelf.

Twice more, Grady told Neal, she spent her Saturdays trekking to Memphis to buy books by Yerby — all in hopes of turning around a rude adolescent who had made her cry. She paid for the books out of her own pocket.

How can one measure Grady’s impact? Not only in Neal, but in the lives of those around him. His daughter, Karama, earned a doctorate in genetics, taught bioethics at Emory University, and now runs a community development program in Arkansas.

The big-hearted Grady, now dead, is a reminder that teachers may have the most important job in America. By all accounts, Grady transformed many other children as well, through more mundane methods.

This is not an isolated case. This is common. This is what happens in schools all over South Carolina, every day, when sometimes, the acts of teachers stick and the lives of otherwise neglected children are transformed, moment by moment.

It is not a teacher, or a workforce of teachers, who fails a child in South Carolina; it is a system that subjects teachers to professional disrespect and degradation as it subjects those children to lives without opportunity. Systems that support public education and education professionals also support success.

Kristof concludes,

The implication is that we need rigorous teacher evaluations, more pay for good teachers and more training and weeding-out of poor teachers.

This is an error in his perspective, but a correctable one: He begins at the end of the process, when beginning at the beginning is sounder policy. There should be no need to "weed out" "poor teachers," as he puts it, there should only be a process of teacher preparation that ensure every professional who enters the classroom is caring, qualified and capable.

That won't happen without changing our system, returning the profession to a position of highest respect, making its compensation and benefits the object of intense competition, and investing the resources in every classroom necessary to keep the state's best and brightest educators on the job for as long as they will work.

The need for more pay is simple. In the 1950s, outstanding women like Grady didn’t have many alternatives, and they became teachers. Grady was black, so she didn’t have many options other than teaching black children in a segregated school.

Today, women like Grady often become doctors, lawyers or bankers — professions with far higher salaries. If we want to recruit and retain the best teachers, we simply have to pay more — while also more aggressively thinning out those who don’t succeed. It’s worth it.

Rather than insist on being first and best in misguided priorities and perpetuating old and discarded prejudices, South Carolina can and should insist on being first and best at preparing educators to teach, children to learn, and our state to lead.

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