At a Kansas University, Teachers Get Their Own Hall of Fame
The call that changed Anna S. Alfiero's life came one Sunday night last spring, just as she had settled in to watch "Murder, She Wrote'' after a long day working in her yard.
The caller told Ms. Alfiero, a science and mathematics teacher at Clark Lane Middle School in Waterford, Conn., that she was one of the first five teachers who had been selected for induction into the National Teachers Hall of Fame.
"I called them back the next day,'' Ms. Alfiero recalls, "and said I really didn't believe it.''
But it was true. And since that telephone call, she has been treated to the kind of recognition that few teachers ever receive, however deserving they may be.
Her school held a surprise assembly, attended by her own children, to congratulate her on the honor. The city council in her hometown of Norwich issued a proclamation praising her. Former students have stopped her on the street, and past colleagues have written her congratulatory notes.
"At least once a week, somebody makes a comment about it,'' she says, "and it's still going on.''
'Role Models' for Others
That stream of recognition and thanks for her 30-year career was just the sort of reaction that the folks in Emporia, Kan., who founded the hall of fame wanted to encourage.
"A lot of people out there want to see our schools improved,'' says Edward McGlone, its executive director. "They're not necessarily sure that America 2000 or this report or that report is the way to do it, but they are convinced that one way is to recognize and honor outstanding teachers and let them be the role models for the other teachers.''
With that conviction in mind, the city of Emporia, Emporia State University, and the university's alumni association began work in 1989 to create the hall of fame. The idea actually had been floating around since the 1960's, Mr. McGlone says, when a former president of E.S.U. proposed creating a teachers' hall of fame.
The suggestion made sense for Emporia State, particularly, because it was founded as a normal school and remains proud of those roots. A one-room schoolhouse at one end of the campus served for a time as the hall of fame's temporary home.
University and community officials set about raising money for the project, some of which came from the economic-development arm of the local chamber of commerce.
Then they were blessed by an anonymous donor, who gave the National Teachers Hall of Fame a 35,000-square-foot building for its permanent home. The three-story building was the library of the now-defunct College of Emporia.
The building, located about a mile from the university, eventually will contain a conference center for education-related conferences and symposia, a museum and exhibition center depicting the history of education, and the displays honoring hall-of-fame teachers.
In the meantime, it houses a mock-up of the one-room schoolhouse, built by local art students, and a six-foot replica of a Crayola crayon box, complete with crayons, that also was made by Emporia schoolchildren.
"We're really just in the process of getting moved in,'' Mr. McGlone says.
A Flight on Corporate Jet
By last June, the project was on solid enough ground for the induction of the first five teachers.
The call for nominees had gone out many months before, and the selection committee had 93 applications from 30 states to consider in choosing the first teachers to honor.
The nominations were made by the candidates' local teacher associations or school faculties. Each included a biography and information on the teacher's professional development and activities outside the classroom. Each candidate also wrote an essay on his or her philosophy of teaching and what makes an effective teacher, what changes need to be made for the 21st century, and a one-page narrative on "the candidate's regard for classroom teaching.''
The package also included letters of support from the teacher's superintendent or principal, the person making the nomination, a colleague, and a current or former student.
The committee finally settled on Ms. Alfiero; Sheryl Abshire, who is now an elementary principal in Calcasieu Parish, La.; Helen Case, a retired teacher from El Dorado, Kan.; Shirley C. Naples, a retired 3rd-grade teacher from Ferndale, Mich.; and Joseph S. York, a high school English teacher in Adamsville, Tenn.
For many of the winners, the news that they had been chosen for the national honor touched off an outpouring of enthusiasm and support.
Aqua Glass, the largest employer in Adamsville, a town of 1,700 residents outside of Memphis, flew Mr. York and other Adamsville educators to Emporia for the awards festivities on its corporate jet.
The mayor's daughter, a former student of Mr. York's, traveled to Emporia. So did the woman who owns the local restaurant where teachers often have breakfast.
"In a small town like this,'' Mr. York explains, "where the school is such an integral part of the community and there is so much community support, when I received the award it was like Adamsville received the award.''
Sen. James Sasser, the Tennessee Democrat, sent a state flag to hang in the National Teachers Hall of Fame, and the state education department lifted a restriction on out-of-state travel so a representative could be at the ceremony.
"It meant a lot to have that depth and breadth of support,'' Mr. York says.
'I Felt Like a Star'
The teachers were picked up at Kansas City International Airport by a group of Emporia teachers who were their hosts for the weekend. Just like celebrities, Ms. Abshire recalls, the teachers rode in cars with their names and "National Teachers Hall of Fame'' on signs attached to the car doors.
Emporia rolled out the red carpet, spotlighting the teachers at its annual Twin Rivers Festival. In addition to the awards ceremony itself, which drew about 300 people, there were cocktail parties, buffets with hall-of-fame founders, a demonstration lesson in the one-room schoolhouse, a roundtable discussion of education issues, and a press conference at which the teachers were asked their philosophies of education.
"I just felt like I was some type of star,'' Ms. Abshire says. "They made you feel like what you had accomplished was incredible, remarkable. It's not often that someone in the education profession is told numerous times about how valuable our career has been.''
The teachers also found that they had a great deal in common, despite the differences in their backgrounds and experiences. The group enjoyed hearing Ms. Case tell tales of beginning her teaching career in a one-room school, and found that they agreed on the keys to good education: strong family involvement, active learning, and a focus on developing global responsibility.
It was not as though Ms. Abshire and the other hall-of-fame teachers had not been honored before. The Louisiana teacher, who was an elementary school librarian and media specialist at the time she was inducted, is a specialist in educational technology and was a 1991 Christa McAuliffe fellow at Stanford University.
When she was chosen for induction into the National Teachers Hall of Fame, Ms. Abshire said, Gov. Edwin Edwards of Louisiana declared May 5 a special day for honoring teachers and invited her to the Governor's mansion for a ceremony and press conference.
The award was particularly meaningful, Ms. Abshire notes, because Louisiana traditionally ranks at the back of the pack on many educational indicators and has developed what she regards as an undeserved reputation for having poor schools.
At the press conference, she recalls, the Governor made a joke about the "nationwide perception of the Louisiana education system as dismal'' and then pointed to her selection as one of the five top teachers. Then he said, "Thank goodness we finally made the top 10,'' Ms. Abshire says.
Mr. York was the Tennessee teacher of the year last year. Other winners had studied schools in England and India on fellowships and served in leadership positions in their local and state teachers' associations.
Ms. Alfiero, who is now a middle school guidance counselor, is a member of the Norwich, Conn., board of education. As such, she has had her share of feuds with the city council over the school system's budget. To lure her to the council chambers for a special award, she recalls, her fellow board members told her that the council members wanted to pick over the budget one last time.
"I felt so guilty,'' she says, "because I was huffing and puffing about the budget.'' Instead, she found a warm welcome and red roses.
To keep up the recognition program and develop the exhibits and conference center, Mr. McGlone says he plans to branch out from raising money locally to ask national corporations for donations.
Already, without any formal advertising or marketing efforts, the hall has attracted visitors from as far away as California and Canada, according to signatures on the guest book.
Perhaps they agree that teaching, no less than football or baseball, deserves a hall of fame.
"We need more focus on the importance of the role of teaching,'' Mr.
York says, "and the only way is to focus on the teachers who do make a
difference. We all know we make a difference, but others need to know
we do, too.''