Mill Elliot picture

Valentine's Day is a good time to express your appreciation of teachers. It's also a good time to define good teaching and think about unsung heroes. Good teachers change our lives. They inspire us and set us on new paths. Good teachers motivate, engage, challenge, inspire, and sometimes save us from ourselves or from others. Great teachers lift us up. They make us aspire to higher aims.

Good teachers—both tangibly and intangibly—are among the most valuable members of society. Research reports that the difference in a weak teacher and a strong teacher can last a student's lifetime. If you have ever had a good teacher, express your gratefulness on Valentine's Day. One good teacher in my life was Miss Elliott.

A Valentine for Miss Mary Alice Elliott

Truthfully, I've been blessed with many good teachers. On this Valentine's Day I'm sending a Valentine of appreciation to Miss Mary Alice Elliott, my high school history teacher. She gave hard tests. She inspired me by making history come alive. Her classes were sprinkled with art projects, multi-media assignments, story-telling, and anecdotes. Miss Elliott had traveled far beyond my poor, rural North Carolina community and she shared that experience in her classroom. She made me long to travel and see the world. She was the first person I knew who had traveled to India. She studied at Poona University under a Fulbright Scholarship and shared that experience with her students. She introduced me to fine art. I still remember her lectures on the discus thrower and bird's nest soup. (I would later see the British Museum's copy of Myron's lost, Greek, bronze, discus thrower from the fifth century BC. Tasting authentic bird's nest soup is still in my future.)

Miss Elliott Was a Great Teacher

How to evaluate a good teacher, what to pay them, and how to give them more prestige are currently crucial issues in America. I don't know the answer for today's vital question of how to evaluate good teachers, but even in high school, I knew one when I saw one. Miss Elliott's good teaching would influence me as a teacher in elementary school and years later as a teacher at the university and beyond. She still inspires.

Good teaching has a lot to do with rigor, discipline, knowledge of subject matter, creativity, high expectations, preparation, and passion. At best it includes compassion and caring for students. Good teachers motivate and inspire. I learned this from Miss Elliott. Although she retired after 40 years of teaching, she continued to teach me about teaching. Ten years after retirement Miss Elliott was still driving every week to a town 26 miles from her home to volunteer-teach struggling fifth-grade readers. She volunteered in a school with many poor children. To celebrate the successful completion of a book they had read together–usually an illustrated classic that wasn't in the child's home–Miss Elliott purchased the books ahead of time and gave the classic to her tutees after she taught them to read it.

Good Teaching Requires Heart and Soul

Years after Miss Elliott retired, a local kindergarten teacher invited our former high school history teacher to "put on a program" for her kindergarten class on "George Washington." Miss Elliott wrote me a letter about that experience: "I put my heart and soul in this as I did not know a thing about teaching kindergarten," she wrote.

What did she do? She took in two American Revolutionary military uniforms for two little boys to wear during her lesson. I'm sure they will never forget how proud they were to be chosen. She purchased $1 play-money bills displaying Washington's portrait for each child. She gave each child a Washington relief portrait on a real quarter. She told the kindergartners George Washington stories, baked them thumbprint cookies with a cherry in the middle, and gave them smooth river-pebbles to remind them of her telling of Washington crossing the Delaware. Finally she purchased a flag and had them sing "Yankee Doodle" as they marched around the room at the end of the lesson. Laughing about her transition from advanced placement history to kindergarten she told me, "A real teacher can adapt and teach anything."

Leaving Students with Better Life Outcomes

Good teachers leave students with a better life. Miss Elliott did that for me. Are teachers like Miss Elliott born or made? Good teaching can be learned from a good mentor. But maybe some of great teaching is inborn. Some research studies show that great leaders and good entrepreneurs may be influenced by genetic factors. As I strive to be a good teacher, I'm thankful to have teaching in my blood. My great grandfather was a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse. My grandmother was a teacher. My mother was my first grade teacher when she taught me to read. I had three aunts and three uncles who were teachers. Everyone of them influenced my life in positive ways. Teachers in our lives keep on giving even after they are gone.

So here's a shout out to all of you teachers–past, present, and future: "Happy Valentine's Day, I love you!" And to Miss Mary Alice Elliott–eighty years young–a special Happy Valentine's Day to you!

(Dr. J. Richard Gentry is the author of Raising Confident Readers, How to Teach Your Child to Read and Write-From Baby to Age 7. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn and find out more information about his work on his website.)

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