John O’Leary writes an open letter of gratitude to teachers, who have historically been selfless in serving youth and today more than ever.
A good teacher is like a candle – it consumes itself to light the way for others.’ – Mustafa Kemal Atatürk
“Something like 80% of teachers don’t even want to go back. Why don’t they stop being selfish, do their job and teach these kids?”
I heard this recently on a radio show. The woman speaking had just learned her district was planning virtual learning for the first semester. She wondered how she could possibly work and instruct her kids.
With my four kids in similar situations, I empathize with her angst. The anger directed at the teachers, however, is misplaced.
A quick look back at our own teachers or those from history remind us of the profound, selfless dedication teachers reveal through their lives. And, sometimes, their deaths. Let me explain.
A series of unfortunate events lead to a horrific fire at Our Lady of Angels School in 1958. Without smoke detectors or advance warning, the teachers on upper floors were cut off from their only exit. As toxic gases filled the classrooms and heat made breathing painful, they gathered as many children as they could to try to provide comfort and shelter from the heat.
When firefighters made it to the upper rooms, they discovered teachers grasping onto their students striving to protect them. Their last actions on earth were caring for their students.
This is just one example; the next takes place several years later and an ocean away.
History repeats itself. These stories of how teachers selflessly give to their students will remind you of the gratitude and respect we should heed during this difficult season of virtual and social distanced classrooms.
On October 21, 1966, after weeks of heavy rain, the hill became unstable, gave way and released more than 140,000 yards of material. The roar of the avalanche grew in intensity as it plunged toward a school directly in its path. As the mountain of rock and grime and coal hurtled toward them, desperate teachers attempted to get their students to safety.
In one classroom, Mrs. Rennie Williams ordered her children to move quickly toward the back exit to save themselves. While they exited, she hurriedly pushed her desk in the direction of the coming debris and then leaned fully against it in an effort to save the children. Although 116 children died in this catastrophe, none of Mrs. Williams’ students were harmed. She was celebrated as a hero when she passed away by many of the first graders she helped save. Those children were now in their late 60’s because Mrs. Williams survived that day, too, and lived until this past May. She spent the majority of those years doing what she loved: teaching.
A 27-year-old, first-grade teacher named Victoria Soto grew up dreaming of becoming a teacher. On December 14, 2012 when she heard shooting down the hall, Ms. Soto quickly ushered her kids to the far side of the classroom, into a closet encouraged them to hide and not make a sound.
The Sandy Hook shooting was an utterly senseless tragedy that some first graders thankfully survived, thanks to the heroic final act of Ms. Soto before she was murdered that day.
And to a far less dramatic degree, in March of 1987, after spending more than two months in hospital and still covered in bandages that still took the breath away of even the most seasoned health care professionals, my mother entered my room with a new visitor, a special educator named Patrice Murphy. Although Mrs. Murphy wore a facemask that day – I still remember the twinkle in her eye and enthusiasm in her voice as she shared she could not wait to be my teacher.
My friends were scared to visit me. Yet, this young teacher entered into my life, met me where I was, and began to teach a child who didn’t enjoy school even before getting burned. Bedridden and in intense pain, I can’t remember all that she taught during those tutoring sessions. One lesson, however, I’ll never forget was this: Although I might be different and this experience may be hard, I still had value, still had someone to believe in me, still had a future.
My friends, our educators have demonstrated repeatedly in the midst of turmoil, natural disasters, human tragedies and ordinary life their commitment to the children in their classroom.
The desire they possess to elevate the lives of students isn’t something learned in college. There is no manual they receive insisting they lay down their life for the children during times of trial. There is no rulebook on how to interact with kids in burn care. And there is no guidebook on how to teach during a pandemic and in the midst of a global recession.
And yet, as summer fades to fall, as a nation remains on edge, and as schools navigate wildly difficult circumstances, let’s have confidence that the same profession that has served nobly in the past will be effective, instructive and invaluable during these times, too.
Even in this season of anxiety, anger and darkness, like a brilliant candle, great teachers will continue to choose to consume themselves to light the way for others. That light sometimes glimmers in school buildings. Sometimes it shines in hospital rooms. And, perhaps this year, it may sparkle vibrantly through a computer screen.
Be assured that the light will shine, we’ll get through this together and the best days remain ahead.
This is your day. Live Inspired.