Honor Roll

Baseball has one. So does rock 'n' roll. Now there is a national hall of fame for teachers

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The call that changed Anna 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 Alfiero, a science and mathematics teacher at Clark Lane Middle School in Waterford, Conn., that she was one of the first five teachers selected for induction into the National Teachers Hall of Fame.

“I called them back the next day,” 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. 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.”

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 1960s, when a former president of ESU first proposed it. 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 an anonymous donor offered a permanent home: a 35,000-squarefoot, three-story building, which was once 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, also made by Emporia schoolchildren. “We're really just in the process of getting moved in,” McGlone says.

But 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. Candidates also wrote an essay on their 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 Alfiero; Sheryl Abshire, who is now an elementary principal in Calcasieu Parish, La.; Helen Case, a retired teacher from El Dorado, Kan.; Shirley Naples, a retired 3rd grade teacher from Ferndale, Mich.; and Joseph 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, flew York and other local educators to Emporia for the awards festivities on its corporate jet. The mayor's daughter, a former student of York's, also traveled to Emporia, as did the woman who owns the local restaurant where teachers often have breakfast.

U.S. 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,” York says.

The five 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, Abshire recalls, the teachers rode in cars with their names and “National Teachers Hall of Fame” on signs attached to the 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 round-table discussion of education issues, and a press conference at which the teachers were asked to describe their philosophies of education.

“I just felt like I was some type of star,” 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.”

When Abshire's selection was announced, 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. 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 the governor said, “Thank goodness we finally made the top 10,” Abshire says.

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.

Already, without any formal advertising or marketing efforts, the hall has attracted visitors from as far away as California and Canada. Perhaps they agree that teaching, no less than baseball or football, deserves a hall of fame.

“We need more focus on the importance of the role of teaching,” 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.”

Vol. 04, Issue 03, Pages 12-13

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