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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.

37 replies on “An Open Letter of Gratitude to Teachers”

Mandy Cash at Fort Payne Middle school in Fort Payne Alabama. I have known her since she was in high school. She is a very caring person, always going the extra mile for others. Mandy has taught my grandchildren and has an enthusiasm and love for teaching that seems to be instilled in her. She amazed me when she was in high school and to this day is still doing so.

As always, your message resonates, John.
Our school made the decision to have in person learning and opened on Monday, but they supported our decision to distance learn. With warmth, love, and such hard work, they went back to schools and classrooms and lesson plans and long days that don’t look anything like they did last year at this time. We pray for kindness instead of criticism and appreciation for all they’re doing. There is no road map to this, friends. Let’s be kind.

My daughter-in-law, Taylor Allen. Although she is only beginning her third year of teaching, she shares that desire to light the paths of her students that you speak of in your post. Working in a school district that whose students come from lower income families, she works tirelessly to find ways to connect with her students in order to develop in them a love of learning.

My favorite teacher… is my husband! Also, growing up, my mom was a teacher. So I’ve been surrounded by amazing examples of selfless love my whole life. And that doesn’t even go into the amazing blessings of Mrs. Dueker, Ms. Dana, Mr. Wallace, Coach May who were my teachers so many years ago….

My sister, Rebecca, is a teacher at Brookside Charter in Kansas City, MO. The love that she has for her students, her parents, and the community is inspiring. This summer, she’s worked tirelessly alongside her fellow educators and administrative staff to plan what the school year will look like. Hours and hours each day in meetings, reviewing data, thinking about the kids, parents, and community. Just writing this, I am IN AWE of her and realize I need to tell her (thanks, John!). And if she/her school isn’t selected, I’ll send her a copy of the book on my own dime – it’s really the least I can do!

Peggy Rose will be a name always be remembered in our home. My daughter Amanda didn’t have her as a teacher, but Mama Rose taught her so many life lessons as she led Amanda as part of the Youth Group of Trinity Church on Mission Trips into poor areas of Marion, Virginia. Fast forward to many years later, she was the teacher that took an interest in my elementary school age son Trevor because he needed her. He needed the wisdom that she shared with us as parents of a wonderful boy that was coping with ADHD as well as the autism spectrum, and suffers from an anxiety disorder. Because of the insight and guidance of Mrs. Rose, Trevor is now a thriving 8th grader recently selected to take Algebra 1 who also plays tennis & golf for his middle school teams. He wouldn’t be successful today without her love and support for us so many years ago.

My sister, Mrs. Christie Russell.
She is a 3rd grade teacher at Denver Green School, in Colorado. She is an inspiration to me, and I know, to every student who has the blessing of being in her classroom. She leads with compassion, kindness, love, and a great amount of strength. She always wants what’s best for the kids, and cares deeply about their lives outside the classroom, too. I am so proud of her for how she is approaching this year that is full of unknowns and so many things seemingly out of the teacher’s control. Thank you for writing this beautiful tribute to teachers! They really are heroes!

Mr. Elseth, my 7th and 9th grade science teacher, reduced the fear of science and replaced it with amazement and fun. He cooked his hot dog lunch in a beaker over a Bunson burner and inspired us to question creatively with science fair projects and see science in every day. He even sported a homemade light-up tie back in 1970 before they became common! He taught by example in his classroom by teaching and encouraging us to use methods “outside the box.” As a special education paraprofessional for the past 23 years, I’ve enjoyed the adventure of trying to connect with students by making learning fun for them, just as Mr. Elseth did for me.

Diane Hogan Seventh grade English teacher. She took such special notice of my writing and was so encouraging. Not to mention she was really super cool.

Thank YOU Vickie.. … how cool to think right now someone is telling a colleague about a teacher they had years ago named Vickie Clampitt….and the impact SHE had on them! You matter — thanks for it — John

I think it is important to remember that teachers have families too and most of the teachers I know want to go back to school and do their job. My mom taught in the Michigan public school system for many years and eventually became an administrator. She would leave for her job before 8 a.m., come home at 4 p.m. and rush to make dinner for her husband and children, then go back to school to teach adult learners, until 11 p.m. at night and sometimes even later, if a student needed her help after night school ended. Students would line up outside her door to speak to her, late at night. She worked this way to put her own five children through college and, eventually, worked so hard that it took her life. Her last year on the job, she was awarded the school districts’ highest award and she was honored shortly before she passed on.
The teachers in my children’s school have rehearsed and planned different scenarios/procedures all summer to try and return to teaching in the classroom at the end of August. I know that they would rather teach in-person than remotely, because they really do love their students.

Kelly — Thank you for this awesome reminder ….. I have a feeling as profound as her impact was professionally, her finest work was with you., Thanks for continuing that legacy —

Mrs. Lauryn Smith at Schnell Elementary in Placerville, CA. She makes sure her kids, many of whom are less fortunate, are able to read and do artwork, regardless of their economic ability. She finds creative ways to raise funds. A couple years in a row, she’s raised funds to get a monthly scholastic book for each of her kids. This year she’s getting them art supplies so they can express themselves during distance learning, as well as when they return to the classroom.

Karen — I am deeply moved by MrsSmith …. will you pass along our respect, admiration and love for her? Thanks for sharing — and thank her for LIVING the message.

My wife is my teacher hero. She is an inspiration to me every day. Her talent and passion for her students shines through each day in the classroom and with the many connections and follow up conversations she has after the school day is over. This will be even more so this year as she is teaching part of her class in person and part of her class virtually, at the same time. The effort and dedication she has is second to none and the value to the next generation is critical to all of our futures. An amazing woman that I admire daily.

Tell your wife, Rod, we are thankful for her heart and impact … it makes a difference. Thanks for sharing your respect of her with us.

I once was asked to return to my alma mater 30 years after i had graduated High school to address the Faculty before the beginning of the new school year. It was very easy to talk about what helps a student succeed because the teachers I had knew they weren’t just teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic. They were teaching me how to learn!

Name dropping of former faculty members who shaped my learning culture:

Mrs. Lee taught that patients and kindness go hand in hand.
Mrs. Smith taught that the fastest way between two points is a straight line. Lol
Mrs. Perkins taught me the value of doing my homework!
Mrs. Arnold taught that there was always time for one more song.
Mrs. Traylor taught that we shouldn’t use the name of God at the beginning and end of every sentence.
Mr. Brown taught the meaning of mercy.
Coach Glass taught me adverbs although I’m not sure why! (the value of repetition)
Coach Dunavent taught that there are no excuses and that only the coach argues a call.
Tom Taylor and Mike Ramsey taught that administrators are indeed servants.
Mr. Vannarsdall and Mr. True taught that a little hard work never hurt anybody.

Culture spelled out in broader terms:
1. Do the right thing! (Show yourself to be trustworthy!)
2. Do your best! (Show that you’re committed!)
3. Treat others as more important than yourself! (Fairness)

These lessons need to be taught as clearly today as they were years ago for you, Rodney. They are beautiful! Thanks buddy and have an awesome day — thanks for making mine with the list above — John

In my first year of teaching, I was assigned to a 2nd grade classroom. Even though I was prepared through my four years of college, I was still terrified. Our principal assigned veteran teachers as mentors for first year teachers. My mentor’s name was Hope and she taught 6th grade. She held my hand through that first year and I think of her often. I don’t think it was a coincidence that her name was Hope. I’m now starting my 25th year as an educator and each year on the first day of school, I thank God for Hope and the gift of her mentorship in my first year of teaching.

Mr. Kelly was my high school English teacher. I entered his room (with the green door!) as a freshman and was caught off guard by all the posters filled with inspirational quotes and Irish sayings. He had pictures of leprechauns everywhere, and the twinkle in his eye showed how much he cared about each one of his students. We were all required to give a speech about someone who had inspired us. I was shy and completely terrified of standing up in front of the class. On top of that, the only thing I’d felt inspired by during my short life was my horse, who had broken his leg and was put down earlier that year. I decided to give my speech about this horse, and partway through the speech, I completely broke down and couldn’t finish. It was a Friday afternoon, and the dismissal bell rang while I stood there in front of the class in tears. All the rest of the students somberly filed out of the classroom, looking at me with pity as I melted into an embarrassed heap. Mr. Kelly waited until everyone else was gone, and he told me he understood how hard it must be to share a story about something that meant so much to me but was no longer a part of my life. And then he told me he looked forward to hearing the rest of the speech on Monday. I was shocked. Wasn’t it enough that I tried to give the speech already? Clearly I couldn’t bring myself to finish it. Why would I have to do it again on Monday? He just put his hand on my shoulder and told me he knew I could do it. I cried even more. But knowing that Mr. Kelly believed in me gave me the courage to try again on Monday. I had much more composure, made it through the emotional parts of my speech, and I finished it without crying on Monday afternoon. It was hard, and it didn’t make me want to become a public speaker. But I did it, and it gave me the confidence to realize I could get through anything if someone believed in me and if I believed in myself. I’m so grateful Mr. Kelly didn’t let me just slide on by. It would have been easier for me and for him. But it wouldn’t have taught me to believe in myself. Many thanks, Mr. Kelly!

My daughter is my “teacher hero”. As a preschool Special Education teacher, she had truly made a significant positive impact on the children in her care—both inside and outside the classroom. Many of her kiddos have social, behavioral or health challenges that aren’t about learning the alphabet or numbers. She creates individual plans and goals for each child and spends countless hours of her own time advocating for the best interest of those children, many who don’t have someone to speak for them. The joy that she receives from their victories and accomplishments is profound. Her calling is truly to be a teacher and she lives that calling every day.

Mrs. Audrey Calmes was my 2nd grade teacher at St. John’s Elementary School. First grade had been difficult for me because of an overly strict teacher. Mrs. Calmes was so kind and gentle and encouraging, she made me love going to school and love learning. To this day, 50 years later, she is still one of my biggest cheerleaders and she expresses all the time how proud she is of my accomplishments. Love you, Mrs. Calmes!

Mrs. McLoyd for me… A beautiful African American lady, she was my 8th grade English teacher. She was the first person who told me I could write. I still have a framed photgraph of her up in my office!

I want to lift up my daughter as a teacher who is thrilled to be back with her students, never voicing any fear for her safety. She could not wait to get back to teaching and was willing to do any job they asked her to do just so she would still be with her 3 year olds when the time came to start up again. The teachers are having to make so many changes and adaptations at her school but they all are doing it willingly with a smile on their face and a prayer in their heart!

Just when I needed to hear a voice of encouragement, I am reminded that my years as a teacher really mattered. And that, now, it is my turn to be a voice of encouragement for those who serve. Thank you for the timely reminder. Wisdom and strength to those on the front lines, in whatever manner they are called to serve.

I am the father of 4 amazing sons, 3 which are adopted. My youngest son had the opportunity to be assigned to Mrs. Joy Kruse for 5th grade at CrockerRiverside Elementary in Sacramento. I can’t explain all she did for him, not only being his teacher, but his mentor and provided him the love he needed. He had a jaded view of the world based on his previous trauma and Mrs Kruse helped him see the world in a better light, which continues to this day (he is now 13). We are forever grateful for Mrs Kruse’s love and guidance she showed our son.

We have a son-in-law and daughter-in-law who are teachers. The countless hours they spend outside of the classroom to prepare for the classroom and to make learning fun has always astounded me. Our daughter-in-law directed a high school play in her 9 month of pregnancy and had our granddaughter on the night of the play. Our son-in-law, along with his wife and 2 year old son spent the spring and summer planing, weeding, and watering an orchard and community garden alone. Because of covid the FFA students who would have helped couldn’t. Hats off not only to them, but all of our amazing teachers! Thank you for honoring them.

Mrs. Jane Shriver is lighting the way for others at Prince of Peace Catholic School. As the principal she is working tirelessly to do things we have never done all the while encouraging her staff, the parents and students to be positive and trust God. As a paraprofessional, parent and volunteer at that school I see her shine from every angle, every single day. If she was a candle before, she is a bonfire in this time of uncertainty.

My wife is a second grade teacher. She has the love and passion for every child she encounters. As this pandemic is with us she continues to get up and go teach the children she loves even though she doesn’t who is going to be in the classroom or attending virtually. The passion she has to be the best teacher possible is remarkable and a joy to watch.

My wife, Kathy Wilkinson, a 1st grade teacher at St. Vincent Ferrer School in Delray Beach, Florida inspires me. She is a 35+ year veteran of this noble profession. She is, and always has been, one of those special teachers that former students run up to, to say HI or ask for a hug no matter where we happen to be.
During this past summer she has spent countless hours during, some times waking up at 3:00 or 4:00 AM, trying to learn and understand how to teach on-line so that the remote learners she has in her class this year will have the same quality education as the ones that are in her classroom. This may sound like what every other teacher has been doing, but while my wife has been an amazing, giving and loving teacher her entire career, technology has never been one of her strengths. Yet she has watched countless videos, taken online classes, and consulted with colleagues, to figure out this new normal so that this year’s students will have a quality education whether they are in her classroom or their own living rooms.
During this very frustrating summer she has yelled, growled, cried and even contemplated retiring early, but this isn’t the way she wants to end her career. She has persevered and her students will be better for it. She is one of the strongest people I know and I am so proud of her.
Thanks for letting me tell you about this amazing person that I’ve been married to for 37 years. She inspires me each and every day and I’m blessed to share my life with her.

My daughter has had so many amazing teachers in her 8 years of schooling at the Souderton Charter School Collaborative. To pick just one teacher who has lit the way is impossible. However, I can say that there is a strong team of teachers who met my daughter where she was at, built her up, supported her, and continue to do so… from all grade levels! My daughter has learning challenges but has a passion to grow and learn. Her teachers have loved her and pushed her beyond what she knew was capable of by feeding into her passions and listening. I can’t begin to thank her school of teachers enough!

Dr. Judy Lemons and Dr. Jane Schaffer from Hannibal LaGrange College (now University) continuously inspired, encouraged, and showed grace! I always wanted to be a teacher, then went to college and still saw teaching in my future but realized realistically what a challenge it would be. These two teachers invited me into their office, even more into their homes on a regular basis filling me with real life connections and faith to follow God’s plan for my life. Tests were hard for me; they helped me study and learn beyond the classroom. I learned from them teaching is more than just in the books and on paper or screen. It is all about how we look into our students’ eyes, truly listen to what they have to say, and demonstrate grace and love through every action taken and word said.

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