Teacher Appreciation Week has just concluded, and I will admit that the ads and short features broadcast during the week had their intended effect on me.
The week began with the news that corporate profits for the previous quarter had set an all time record. Naturally, in the context of today’s economic and political environment, the question followed as to why these corporations, bloated on dollars as they are, are not hiring. The somewhat startling answer was that there are 2,000,000 jobs currently going unfilled. The reason? In this evermore technical, global economy there is a lack of qualified applicants. Education, it was stated, would be the only means of closing the gap in technological and scientific knowledge demanded of the workforce of the future.
As always, when education is presented as the solution to current conditions and as the key that will unlock the future, I cannot help but think about Mississippi in terms of our ability to hold our own in this increasingly competitive global arena. This past week — Teacher Appreciation Week — we were encouraged to think about the teachers who made a difference in our lives. I was an oversized, rather obnoxious student at Kosciusko High School. As I ponder teachers that had a major impact on my life and career I realized that these educators did not just make a difference way back then, rather they continue to make a difference every day that I sit behind my desk or stand before a classroom.
While there was indeed a large number of folks in that uncommonly good school system that made a difference, three hardworking teachers come immediately to mind. There was math teacher extraordinaire, Flora May Jordan. If Mrs. Jordan had gotten paid by the hour no school system in Mississippi could have afforded her. At the end of each day, after laboring in an un-air-conditioned school room and writing on and erasing repeatedly every old fashioned chalk board in her classroom, Mrs. Jordan would be covered with chalk dust from head to toe. She would then open her home to an endless line of students in need of tutoring. It was at the end of one such tutoring session that Mrs. Jordan looked at me in exhaustion and said, “You may just not be mathematically inclined.” She was quite correct.
It was about then that social studies teacher Margaret White recognized my natural fascination with politics. She rescued my ego by telling me that I clearly needed to pursue political science as an academic field. I can recall being a great deal more fascinated with the heavy-handed politics of the Ottoman Empire than I was with in seeing the beauty in balancing an equation.
With the discovery of my academic inclinations seemingly headed toward resolution, there was one more mountain to climb. In those days the moment one stepped into the door of Kosciusko High School he/she began hearing of the dreaded senior term paper as prescribed by no-nonsense English teacher Sue Power. It was made quite clear that no one made it out of Kosciusko High School alive without successfully completing every step of this assignment from the first three-by-five inch note card to the last perfectly documented bibliographic citation. Furthermore, such an issue was made of plagiarism that I began to wonder if I had ever had an original thought. Certainly I knew that if I failed to document someone else’s ideas that I would without doubt land in Parchman Penitentiary for an extended length of time. As proof I can remember being asked by the venerable Mississippi State political science professor Tip Allen whether it was really necessary to have 102 footnotes for a 15-page paper.
As fate would have it, I did major in political science and public administration just as Margaret White suggested that I should. In fact, I went on to get a Ph.D. where I discovered that one could not master the coursework and write a dissertation without absorbing a basic level of quantitative methods, i.e. the math necessary to analyze data. It would surely please Mrs. Flora May Jordan to know that those exasperating tutoring sessions were not totally in vain. As far as writing is concerned, I have never gotten over my Sue Power-imposed terror at the mere possibility of using someone else’s ideas without giving them proper credit. Furthermore, I have had to grade hundreds of term papers written by students who have not been sufficiently frightened into appropriate documentation as I had been. On each such occasion, red pen in hand, I would ask myself, “What would Miss Power do?” Needless to say, I appreciate all of these dedicated teachers. It has been 43 years since I sat in their classrooms, but they are still helping me earn a living.
What can we do to make sure that our young people can benefit from teachers who are determined to have a lifelong impact on those whom they teach? How can we make sure that many of the brightest and best choose teaching as careers? It is the teaching profession that holds the key to the question of whether Mississippi competes or falls further by the wayside.