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[Q&A]Teacher of the Year Hails Teachers as 'Educators of Society'

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Rae Ellen McKee, a remedial reading specialist from the Slanesville Elementary School in Slanesville, W.Va., is the 1991 National Teacher of the Year.

A fifth-generation teacher, Ms. McKee follows in the footsteps of her father, who was an elementary teacher and administrator in Appalachia for 40 years.

As the recipient of this award, sponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc., Ms. McKee travels the country as a spokesman for the profession. Staff Writer Karen Diegmueller spoke with her last week.

Q. Why do you think you were named Teacher of the Year?

A. Probably because I represent what I like to term "our new society'' is looking for in a teacher. That is, someone who is not only an expert practitioner and a nurturer of children but also someone who is out of the classroom educating the public, educating other teachers, very much being a spokesperson for the profession.

I also feel that winning the competition is very much dependent upon how well you are able to write and communicate through the presentation of concept papers and also through the interviewing process. If anything, I like to make sure that people realize that I exemplify those qualities in an individual.

Q. Are there enough teachers like you out there?

A. I think there is a great potential in the teaching force. ... We are beginning to become educators of society rather than just educators of children, not nearly as much as certainly needs to be done.

I think that is because we have not been given that power. ... Now that we're starting to get a little more power ... we're beginning to feel our oats a little bit, but it's going to be a long process.

Q. We often hear of the problems associated with urban schools. What challenges do rural schools pose?

A. Most of my children experience life vicariously. They are usually children who rarely travel more than 20 miles outside the radius of their home. What they see on TV and what I can give them in the classroom very much forms their educational experience. That's a special challenge.

Of course, we do face in many instances children who come from homes that are impoverished. I have children who have difficulty with oral language because they're not in literacy-oriented homes.

On the other hand, my kids in the community in which I've lived all my life got a very strong sense of nurturing that not only comes from an extended-family situation, but also by having everyone in the community know and care about the children and what's happening to them and having the community work together. ... I think those kinds of values are very important for our kids and our kids have that advantage.

Q. By your father's example, you say, you became more than a teacher; you became an educator. How do you differentiate between the two?

A. What I saw in my father was that teaching was not ... something you walk into and stand before class, give an assignment, impart knowledge, evaluate the intake of that knowledge, and then go home in the evening.

Being an educator means that you are involved every moment of your life from the moment you rise to the moment you go to sleep ... and improving the situation and thinking through the interactions you have with children. The fact that my father would bring children home for supper because he knew they were latchkey kids 30 years ago, or the fact that he would buy clothing or shoes for kids who didn't have it. That he went out of his way to make sure dental care was available even if it meant that kids went to the dentist with me.

Just his interactions with children in the community throughout his lifetime told me this was not a job that I could choose to do from 9 to 5.

Q. What is the most crucial message you want to convey in your travels?

A. If anything is going to happen to improve education, we're going to have to get away from the idea that education is input, that it's better facilities, that it's more computers, that it's better textbooks, and, if we have all those things together ... then, yes, learning will occur.

Learning will not occur unless the teaching profession is strengthened and the best teachers are encouraged to stay and those teachers who are not creating learning environments in their schools are either helped to do so or [are] replaced by teachers who are willing to create [them].

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