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Our Views: Guiding the future
The best teachers fill a thankless job by leaving an imprint on the next generation
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Members of The Times editorial board include Publisher Dennis L. Stockton; General Manager Norman Baggs; Executive Editor Mitch Clarke; and Managing Editor Keith Albertson

Whatever may be our individual backgrounds, educational levels or career aspirations, we all have one experience in common: At some point in our lives, we were guided by an influential teacher.

It could happen at any level, from pre-kindergarten to graduate school and all stops between. Somewhere along the line, a teacher who cared about us and saw the best within us inspired us to take the path we chose in life.

That’s what great teachers can do, and why their effect on us and our society is immeasurable and irreplaceable.

Today, we celebrate the teachers of the year in Gainesville and Hall County (pages 4-5A), shining a light on a select few who have filled that positive role in many young lives. They are but a few whose mission every day is to nurture our collective future by growing young minds.

It’s a complex, challenging and difficult job, and not for everyone. It takes extraordinary patience, determination, intellect and love to navigate the many obstacles placed in their way. Difficult parents, meddling politicians, shrinking budgets, crumbling buildings, high-tech distractions, threats of violence and a culture that often seems to downplay and even sneer at their efforts can conspire to derail their efforts.

Today’s teachers face difficulties never seen by previous generations. Their ability to instill classroom discipline and decorum has been undermined by policies aimed at heading off litigation from a generation of parents and children who are buoyed by an overblown sense of entitlement. And a sluggish economy has kept their salaries flat, even while they dip into their own pockets to provide supplies and classroom materials.

No Child Left Behind, standardized testing and other top-down methods of manipulating curriculums undercut teachers’ judgment on how to present material. All the while, state leaders push so-called reforms that seem motivated more by campaign cash in some cases than what’s best for students.

Now teachers’ own pay and job status may be determined by student evaluations, a process that has yet to be determined, but required to secure federal Race to the Top grant money. It is hoped local administrators will give teachers the maximum amount of input into creating a workable, fair process.

This is all part of an emphasis to weed out bad teachers, a worthwhile goal, to be sure. But rather than focus on the few who are underperforming, we must acknowledge the many who make our schools work, despite the difficulties they face.

Truth is, it was never easy to be a teacher, despite what some believe. Sure, they get the whole summer off, plus vacation time throughout the school year. But don’t think for a minute teachers work only 180 days a year. The time spent preparing lesson plans, grading papers, working on classroom materials and improving their own education keeps them busy well beyond 40 hours a week.

Teaching is not a job you take just to earn a paycheck. There are easier and more lucrative professions that can provide that without the accompanying demands. It takes a special type of person and an unwavering commitment to the betterment of young minds to step into the tumultuous hallways of a neighborhood school day after day with a smile on your face.

Earlier this week, The Times acknowledged STAR students from the city, county and private schools, a handful of young people who someday will lead our society in business, government, science and higher education. They are but a handful of the many young thinkers coming out of our local schools, all mentored by the previous generation of fertile minds who now accept the task of passing on that love of learning to their students, some of whom will become teachers themselves. And so it pays forward.

As each of the profiles shows, you can’t have star students without star teachers pushing, prodding and raising the bar ever higher, forcing critical thinking that helps smart kids focus and develop their minds. It is that blend of doing and caring that sets great teachers apart and burns their lessons into our minds for all time.

That’s why, no matter how many years it’s been since some of us have stepped into a classroom, we remember those special teachers despite all else we may have forgotten. We recall how their voices brought history, math, science and literature to life from the dusty pages of a textbook; the clever way they forced us to interact and think on our own, not just sit there and take notes; the papers we wrote, motivated to make them better and earn their approval because what they thought of us mattered; and the feeling of satisfaction we got when those papers earned a solid grade and a word of encouragement in red ink at the top.

We remember their names and faces, even the look and smell of their classrooms, decades later, even after some have retired and others passed on. Their work and influence lives on in each of us, along with dozens of others who shared those desks. And as we pass on what we learned, their spirit will live on.

That’s what a great teacher can mean. Few jobs are more important to our long-term success and well-being, and none matter more to our children’s future.

Let’s all celebrate their contributions, their dedication and the care they provide to the next generation of community leaders.