The Gift Of Grace

February 01, 1996 3 min read

Teacher David Guterson, who was featured in this magazine before his best-selling first novel Snow Falling on Cedars was published, believes that “teaching is an act of love.’' Mary Lee Drouin, the extraordinary high school English teacher featured in this month’s cover story, is living proof of that. She is the kind of teacher Henry Adams had in mind when he wrote, “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.’'

Because she is also a singer and performer, it is easy to attribute Drouin’s success and her enormous influence on her students to her charisma (the gift of grace)--of which she has plenty. But good teaching is not dependent on charisma, and charisma alone, as Drouin points out, is not enough to make a good teacher. In her first years of teaching, Drouin was always tired and angry from struggling to motivate students. Then, reflecting on the charm of a favorite uncle, she decided that the essence of his popularity was that he was kind and caring. Drouin decided that henceforth, “I would smile at students and mean it. . . . I would give more than I would demand. I would treat students as I would want my only daughter to be treated--and that is with kindness.’'

This was not “some huge, altruistic effort,’' Drouin points out. “It was a question, really, of how I could make this teaching life better for me as well as for them. . . . I had to ask myself: ‘Are you going to live it in a way that makes you exhausted and sad, or are you going to do what makes you happy during this life?’ '' That insight more than any charisma is the secret of Drouin’s success, and it is a wise message for all teachers.

Colleagues of Neil Shumate, whose story begins on page 36, would argue that he, too, was charismatic and viewed teaching as an act of love. He charmed his kindergarten and 1st grade students, and parents rushed to get their children into his classes. He seemed the epitome of the caring teacher. But law-enforcement agencies and a jury of his peers decided that Shumate’s was a perverted love. He was found guilty of 16 counts of child molestation in a massive betrayal of the trust that society bestows on teachers.

Many teachers in Shumate’s district continue to support him, refusing to believe that the loving man they know could have touched children inappropriately. (One hopes they are right for the children’s sake.) His conviction, they argue, will have a chilling effect on teachers everywhere, intimidating them into avoiding all physical contact with their students. (One hopes they are wrong for the children’s sake.)

Few people who know him would use the word charismatic to describe Al Shanker, the subject of the profile beginning on page 22. He is not a hail-fellow-well-met, eschews small talk, and does not radiate charm or “work a room’’ with ease and grace. Yet in the sense that charisma means a special quality of leadership that inspires allegiance and devotion, Shanker has it. And it derives not from some inner magnetism but from an awesome intellect, a solid integrity, a clarity of mission, and uncommon capacity for common sense.

Both liberals and conservatives pay tribute to Shanker as American education’s most articulate spokesman--quite a transformation from the hard-nosed union leader who brought collective bargaining and strikes to the teaching “profession.’'

For most of the past decade, Shanker has been identified with the reformers, working hard to restructure public education. More recently, discouraged by the lack of results and the continuing decline of public support, he seemed to lurch to the right, launching a nationwide effort to restore order and discipline to schools and refocus attention on the basics. Identifying his members with the concerns of the public and parents was an adroit political maneuver. But it worried some of his colleagues in the reform community who felt he was jumping ship--or, more accurately, shoving them overboard.

Shanker demurs. He argues that new schools are a worthy goal that can be attained with hard work over a long time. Meanwhile, he says, we can do what we know works. It may not be the ideal, but it’s better than what we now have. He’s probably right. The danger is that we’ll become satisfied with the good and stop trying for the best.

--Ronald A. Wolk

A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 1996 edition of Teacher as The Gift Of Grace