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Missed Message

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When I was in high school, I made three vows. One, I would never be a teacher. Two, if I did teach, I would never teach English. And three, if for some Godforsaken reason I did wind up teaching English, I would never teach poetry the way it had been taught to me, as an enigmatic code of stresses and sounds.

Although I violated my first two promises, I have been able to keep the third, which turned out to be the most important. Now, 20 years later, the White House Commission on Presidential Scholars has named one of my students a Presidential Scholar in the Arts for his poetry. But it's not the first time. Four years ago, another of my students received the same honor for her outstanding poetry. I heard recently that the odds of a person getting hit by lightning increase after being hit the first time. Perhaps it's true.

Now in its 31st year, the Presidential Scholars Program is the highest federal honor bestowed upon graduating high school seniors. The commission selects scholars for their superior academic achievements, leadership qualities, strong character, and involvement in community and school activities. One hundred twenty-one students are chosen on the basis of these attributes and broad academic achievement. A smaller number (roughly 20) are selected on the basis of their academic and artistic scholarship in the visual and performing arts and creative writing. My student this year was one of only two chosen for their exceptional poetry.

Each scholar nominates one teacher who most inspired and guided him or her, and the White House commission then designates these individuals "Distinguished Teachers.'' They are invited to Washington, D.C., to join in honoring the scholars and to participate in selected cultural and educational activities of their own.

As a Distinguished Teacher, I took part in some of the student-centered activities but also attended several others. One was a meeting at the U.S. Department of Education, where a number of honored teachers were grilled for two hours on ways the department could better foster good teaching. The officials wanted to know how we thought the quality of teachers and teaching could be improved: They wanted us to share our secrets. It wasn't until a few days later--during a formal luncheon for the Distinguished Teachers--that it occurred to me that these officials had been asking worthy questions but of the wrong people.

At the luncheon, the Presidential Scholars not only thanked their teachers but also explained why they had chosen to honor them. For two hours, some of America's most talented students presented a clinic on excellence in teaching.

The students praised their teachers' enthusiasm, grasp of subject matter, and ability to get it across. Their teachers had held them to an exceptionally high standard, and the students respected that and had lived up to it. One student said his Distinguished Teacher was the first person who had ever given him a B, and he wanted to thank her for not accepting anything but his best. Another commented that she had heard her nominee would be the toughest teacher she would ever have, yet she survived and flourished. Another had heard the same about his nominee but, after working with him for a few weeks, discovered that the teacher was a pushover. "He was so easy to get off track,'' the student said. "All you had to do was ask him something about the '60s.''

Most of the students described teachers who were tough but fair, teachers who showed concern for all their students, not just the best and brightest. They told how their teachers had called for far more than the students thought they could produce and then encouraged them and supported their efforts to accomplish the seemingly impossible.

The students commented how hard their teachers worked--reading essays, preparing lessons, coaching, chaperoning, organizing student activities, and driving them to speech tournaments and science fairs. "I don't know how she does it,'' one student said, many others nodding in agreement.

Nobody claimed that their teacher was easy. Nobody mentioned that their teacher "cut them a break.'' Nobody praised their teacher for being nice, although many spoke of the friendships that developed between them. We heard numerous tales about teachers who had gone out of their way for their students, but the pattern was clear: The reason these students were so successful is that their teachers had shown great confidence in them and worked them hard. The students responded by living up to the high expectations.

It's a shame that the officials from the Department of Education were not at this luncheon. They would have ripped up their notes and erased their tapes from the meeting with the teachers. It's too bad they weren't able to read about it in the newspapers or see it on CNN or C-SPAN; the media didn't show up, either.

Janet Reno had told us in her opening speech that the key to solving the myriad social problems that threaten the security of America is to provide a consistently high-quality education in each school in every community. The nation missed a unique opportunity that day to hear what works in its schools--from the very students who spend seven hours a day there. It's too bad that those who could have best spread the message and done something with it were playing hooky. The answers were given, but no one was there to write them down.

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