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Thankful for Teacher Visionaries

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When you think of a "visionary," whom do you think of? Bill and Melinda Gates and their Foundation? Martin Luther King, Jr.? Gandhi?

Me, I think of Nicholas Negroponte and his One Laptop Per Child Foundation; Maria Montessori and her education philosophy; and most of all, my former boss, John J. English, who died suddenly on November 15.

His vision was access to technology for all, and I was blessed to be one of the people who was chosen to implement this vision in the Fairfax County (Va.) Public Schools and among the families we serve. In a season of giving thanks, I’m thankful for that.

The dictionary defines a "visionary" as a person who "has or is marked by foresight or imagination," a leader who "gives workers opportunities to develop quality decision-making skills and trusts them to carry them out," and a person "who creates a world that works for all of us." John English was all of those things.

I have written a great deal about the technology-access project which John inspired. I’ve said less about what John did for me as a professional. He helped me come to see that all good teachers are visionaries at heart.

A visionary sees a goal, and goes after it with everything she or he has. As visionary teachers we have goals for ourselves and more importantly, for our students, and we pursue the fulfillment of those goals with all of our considerable teacher power. Visionary teachers reveal their dogged determination in conversations that begin with phrases like: "I’m going to teach that child to read or die trying.”

Turning the Submarine

John went after his vision with passion, and he infected everyone around him. I remember when I would come in and report on a particularly frustrating time with the potential donors we were wooing, and he would just look at me, silently challenging me to go back and keep trying. At the same time, he would acknowledge my efforts, valuing them and encouraging me to keep going. And then he would remind me that we were trying to "turn the submarine," a remarkably accurate metaphor for our efforts.

Isn't that what visionary teachers do every single day—recognize the difficulty of the learning our students are trying to do, and challenge them to do more, while respecting and valuing their efforts?

John brought out the best in people, another characteristic of a true visionary. He saw talents and skills in people that they did not even know they possessed, and he worked to bring them to their full potential. How I grew as a professional working for him!

Visionary teachers do this for their students every day—we see the underlying gifts and possibilities each student has and do our best to bring them out and nurture them. We take note of their hidden talents and make opportunities for children to grow. We reinforce effort and interests and try to meld our goals with theirs, cherishing success and providing support.

John's work made a difference in many students' lives. His attitude toward technology and the benefits of its use in schools moved us forward at a remarkable pace, pushing teachers and students to do more and reach higher.

Visionary teachers do the same thing—pushing students and other teachers to continually do their best and challenge themselves. That’s why we keep coming back each year. We are rewarded by student progress—not test scores or perfect projects, but by changes in attitudes and interests, by new goals and great conversations. We too see the future and push toward it with all of our might.

As I sat near the back of the UVA Chapel before John's memorial service, I noticed a clean-cut young man come in and sit quietly in the last pew. He bowed his head, and I thought to myself, "How thoughtful—he is saying a prayer." Then I noticed that he was furiously thumbing his BlackBerry. How John would have laughed! Technology for all was what he wanted—and here it was.

As Thanksgiving comes and goes this year, I am especially grateful for the teachers in my life whose vision brought me to the point that I can celebrate them and their influence on me. I also hope that all teachers will recognize their roles as visionaries—as people who have tremendous power for good.

Please value your power and use it to challenge your students and co-workers to "create a world that works for all of us." My own secret goal, in my elementary school Design and Engineering Lab, is to turn out a bunch of future engineers and scientists, or at least an annual crop of kids who have inquiring minds.

What vision drives you?

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