In early May, for the 25th consecutive year, the Miami County Educational Service Center will host its annual “Excellence in Education” banquet at Edison State Community College. All of the valedictorians and salutatorians of Miami County’s high schools, both public and private, are recognized at this event for their outstanding achievements, not only as students, but as private citizens as well. Also honored is a teacher each student feels has been the most influential educator in his or her life. It is an inspiring, energizing, and uplifting evening, and it reminds those of us whose goal it has always been to help shape lives why we made that choice.
This entire event is steeped in excellence — excellence exhibited by the young people being honored; excellence exhibited by their families, who have provided them with the love and support all young people deserve; and excellence exhibited by teachers who regularly go above and beyond the call of duty to be sure they positively impact their students’ lives. It is not an accident that many of the educators honored each year are repeat invitees. They set themselves apart, because they understand that educating young people is about so much more than teaching them a certain subject. They recognize that their responsibility is to teach kids, not classes, and that mentality epitomizes what being a great teacher is all about.
I am always in awe at the accomplishments of the young people who are honored that evening. In addition to being the most outstanding students this county has to offer, they are all successful outside the classroom. They are stars in extracurricular activities, whether it be in athletics, the arts, or in community service clubs and organizations. They exhibit outstanding leadership skills, not only in their schools, but in their communities, and they are poised beyond their years. They take mission trips to foreign countries, volunteer in soup kitchens, and help teach elementary students how to read a book or behave appropriately. They are well-grounded young adults with lofty goals and dreams of impacting the world in which they live. They are everything we want our children to be, yet they are the students we rarely hear about in the media. But we should. They’ve earned it.
While I enjoy listening to these students’ achievements and their dreams for the future, what has impacted me just as much are the words they say about the teachers who have most impacted their lives. Every year, these students’ speeches, which are delivered straight from the heart, send a powerful message about what matters most to young people who are trying to find their way in this tumultuous world. We would do well to listen carefully to what they say.
I have listened to three to four hundred of these students’ speeches during more than a decade of attending this event, and the theme of every speech is the same. The students thank their honorees for being kind and compassionate souls they can count on in their times of need; they commend them for being available to them as mentors, even as friends, who never make them feel as if they are an intrusion into their lives regardless of when they ask for help; they praise them for the personal and educational guidance they have provided to them; and, yes, they thank them for making their subject matter interesting, sometimes even entertaining. They compliment them for being positive role models and for being people they know they can go to when they feel overwhelmed by life. They focus on their honorees not only as teachers, but also as influential, kind, and caring adults who they trust implicitly.
In other words, the teachers most admired today probably possess the same attributes the teachers you most admire did. And therein lies the lesson.
We in education have allowed ourselves to be distracted by the meaningless chatter that is generated by policy makers in Columbus, and this has caused us to lose our focus on what really matters to kids. What really matters to them is exactly what they tell us matters to them, if we will only listen to them. They don’t care what curriculum we follow or what tests we force them to take or what our district’s state report card says.
What they care about is being surrounded by intelligent, compassionate adults who are committed to helping them shape their lives into something meaningful. They want someone they can confide in; someone who understands that a student’s needs may not align with a specific class period. They want someone they can trust.
Is that really so difficult to understand?
If these insightful, intelligent young people understand that the topics that dominate adult conversations like state testing, the Common Core curriculum, and school district report cards, to name a few, are not what is most important in their lives, why can’t we?
The teachers honored at our “Excellence in Education” banquet learned that rather simple lesson long ago. My hope is that the ones who haven’t yet figured it out will do so soon.
Tom Dunn is the superintendent of the Miami County Educational Service Center.