When Rosa Parks refused, in 1955, to go to the back of the bus where black people were supposed to sit, she set an example of courage that still stands as a hallmark for all of us. How much courage did it take for teachers in Seattle to refuse to give the state-required achievement tests - even when they were threatened with loss of their jobs? Did they do it because of caring (love) for their students? What kind of courage does it take for a teacher to refuse to do state or district required things that s/he knows are harmful to particular students?
Some supreme acts of courage may be comparable with what Rosa Parks did. If you are a teacher reading this, what kind of courage does it take for you to be the kind of teacher who students will remember and appreciate for the rest of their lives? Do you have the courage to show unconditional love? Can you love those who need it the most - the unkempt, obese, smelly, homely, or unruly ones? There is an old story by Elizabeth Silance Ballard (1974) that illustrates this kind of love:
"In Mrs. Thompson's fifth grade class, the students made fun of raggedy Teddy Stoddard when he gave his teacher a rhinestone bracelet with some of the stones missing, and a bottle one quarter full of perfume that was clumsily wrapped in brown paper from a grocery bag. Teddy gave these to Mrs. Thompson for Christmas after his mother died. Mrs. Thompson stifled the children's laughter when she exclaimed how pretty the bracelet was, putting it on, and dabbing some of the perfume on her wrist. Teddy lingered after class that day to tell Mrs. Thompson she smelled just like his mother used to smell.
On that very day, Mrs. Thompson quit teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic. Instead, she began to teach children. Mrs. Thompson paid particular attention to Teddy. As she worked with him, his mind seemed to come alive. The more she encouraged him, the faster he responded. By the end of the year, Teddy had become one of the smartest children in the class.
For several years, after the year she taught Teddy, Mrs. Thompson would receive a note from Teddy telling her she was the very best teacher he ever had. The last one was longer and asked Mrs. Thompson if she would sit at his upcoming wedding in the place normally reserved for the groom's mother. The letter was signed, "Theodore M. Stoddard, M.D."
The story doesn't end there. Of course, Mrs. Thompson did attend the wedding. And guess what? She wore that bracelet, the one with several rhinestones missing. And she made sure she was wearing the perfume that Teddy remembered his mother wearing on their last Christmas together. They hugged each other, and Dr. Stoddard whispered in Mrs. Thompson's ear, "Thank you Mrs. Thompson for believing in me. Thank you so much for making me feel important and showing me that I could make a difference." Mrs. Thompson, with tears in her eyes, whispered back, "Teddy, you have it all wrong. You were the one who taught me that I could make a difference. I didn't know how to teach until I met you."
Over the years, the story of Teddy Stoddard has been told in several versions. This shortened version, although fiction, illustrates the power of loving interaction. (You can find the full version on the internet.) I use it here to illustrate the courage to love unconditionally and make a difference in children's lives. You, as a teacher or parent, could ask yourself, "Am I trying to meet the needs of this child? -- Or meet the needs of the state or federal government? Do I have enough love to resist compulsory learning and standardization of my students? Do I have courage to love enough to draw forth the unique greatness that is in each child? Do I love enough to encourage each child's curiosity, creativity and follow their special interests?
The kind of courage described in this essay, the courage to love unconditionally, is a manifestation of INTEGRITY. If we are true to ourselves, courage to show genuine, respectful love will be what inspires students to achieve and makes them feel you were the best teacher they ever had. They will remember and thank you forever.
Lynn Stoddard is a retired educator who writes about the need to redesign education to meet the needs of unique, individual students. You can read a review of his latest book at http://efhg.org. He lives in Farmington and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.