Ask anyone to name a teacher who had a positive influence on their lives and you'll see their eyes light up and little hesitation as they tell you their story.
It might have been a math or science teacher who inspired an engineering career, or an English instructor who sparked a lifelong love of words. Perhaps it was a music or art teacher who lit the spark of cultural awareness. Or a social studies guru whose efforts guided a student toward a career in law or politics.
So many great teachers have pushed their students to explore new worlds and continue to fill absorbent young brains with a love of learning that will stay with them for a lifetime.
Last week, a group of nine teachers from Hall County were honored at the Featherbone Communiversity in Gainesville for their life's work in filling those young minds with the wonders of the world.
It is always appropriate to honor teachers, but even more so in a year that has been tough on the profession. Local school systems strapped by budget deficits and falling tax revenues have been forced to do what they tried everything in their power to avoid: Lay off instructors. Some were let go because their areas of expertise were less in demand, others for different causes. But it has all teachers looking over their shoulders at what comes next.
In a time when Georgia school districts continue to lag in many measurable standards, and answers to the riddle are hard to find, the work of our best teachers is the best hope, the last line of defense in assuring that our children develop the learning habits they'll need to succeed in a complex, challenging world.
And despite any number of administrative roadblocks, political meddling, unfunded mandates and challenges from every direction, they persevere, in many cases caring as much about the children in their care as the families they are sent home to.
These nine teachers have made their mark in different disciplines, from pre-kindergarten to the university level. But they all have one thing in common: A passion for their students and the process of learning.
Tuesday's event was a celebration of the nine honored, but also a nod to the overall profession and all who dedicate themselves to it. Speakers told of how the inspiration they provide in their classrooms opens the door to everyone's future.
"The intellectual capital of the nation, the brain power and the creativity of our people, is our greatest asset. That may be more true now than ever," said Gus Whalen, founder of the Featherbone Communiversity. "... That's why it's so important that we have the brightest, most compassionate teachers in the classroom."
One of the event's emcees, The Rev. Bill Coates of First Baptist Church, spoke of teachers' giving hearts. That became apparent as the teachers addressed the crowd and spoke of their love of seeing the spark of learning light up their eyes.
"... when you close the classroom door, it is paradise, because you are in this perfect world of ideas," said J.B. Sharma, physics and remote sensing professor at Gainesville State College. "... So really in that sense, it is a most wonderful vantage point to watch this drama called life. To be around these wonderful youngsters that are the salt of the earth, and to watch them grow, it's the most privileged seat that I have to sit and watch this unfold."
No one goes into teaching for the money, the hours or the working conditions. All are demanding and require a commitment above and beyond most 40-hour-a-week jobs. Teachers put in a full day in class, then spend evenings grading papers, preparing lesson plans and keeping parents informed. To do it, and do it well, they have to love it and care about the people who fill the classroom every day.
Whatever shortcomings we may find in our educational system and the people who run it, there is little doubt that teachers remain the strongest asset shared by our schools. Without the hard-working, dedicated men and women who deal with our children one-on-one, every day, there would be no educational system.
We salute the nine Master Teachers and all of their colleagues whose efforts provide an immeasurable service to our community.
And we add a thanks to Whalen and the Communiversity for honoring the area's top performers in a profession that we cannot and should not take for granted.