Teachers Nurture Democracy

Paul Kelley has been teaching mathematics at Anoka High School in Anoka, Minnesota. My wife Helen and I were lucky to meet Paul when we were all invited the recent White House celebration of our nation's teachers. We meandered through the security line and spent time together during the Teacher of the Year ceremony.

Paul is currently in his 29th year as a math teacher, and a member of the Board of Directors of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Three things struck me about Paul Kelley. First he cared deeply for his students and made clear that his relationship with this students was fundamental to their learning. Second he has a devoted family; his wife, also a teacher in the 2nd grade and two daughters came with him to savor the experience even though they were not able to attend the event.

Finally, Paul, like everyone invited to a White House event, was in awe of being there. The pageantry, the history, the President - and the respect communicated for his profession were deeply moving to him. Helen and I felt the same way too.

Paul joined us and many others to hear the message of the National Teacher of the Year, Jahana Hayes. Given my own deep belief in the importance of the role of schools in our communities, I was particular struck by what Ms. Hayes said about that relationship:

"I will make this year about bringing classrooms into communities and communities into classrooms, creating a moment and starting a national conversation about how we can all be better for kids. This is not just about the students in my classroom or your classrooms, this is about every person who has a vested interest in our children, our future, and our world."

This is a powerful and unifying message from a woman who grew up in poverty and was a mother at 17, but still finished high school. Seven years later Ms. Hayes enrolled in a community college. She went on to earn a four-year degree, and Master's degree, and became a high school history teacher in her hometown of Waterbury, CT.

Hayes commitment to community is further illustrated by these words about the relationship between community service and skill building for students drawn from her Teacher of the year application.

"I never expected community service to be such a pronounced part of my work but the satisfaction that comes from watching students take ownership of their community is unmatched... Oftentimes people in the community ask me how I get so many young people to volunteer ... and my answer is always the same, "I ask." Students want to do well, and they want to help others but need to see those behaviors modeled a few times...It starts with me but like a wildfire the desire to help others spreads...By serving their community students are able to demonstrate personal growth and model adult behaviors. This has become extremely personal to me because I feel that graduating students who demonstrate respect, responsibility, honesty and integrity is as critically important as mastering content and demonstrating proficiency."

At a time when there is a particular emphasis on the importance of engagement in the new Every Student Succeeds Act; engagement of students, educators, families and the entire community -- Paul Kelley's focus on relationships and Jahana Hayes emphasis on respect, responsibility, honesty and integrity remind us that our teachers do so much more than prepare students for academic success. These two teachers and the millions of others who pursue their craft all across the country are preparing young people to be engaged workers, family members, and perhaps most importantly to be engaged participants in our democracy.

America should honor our teachers, not just once a year, but every day.