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The Lasting Power of English Teachers: A Note of Appreciation

The following post was written by Doug Hesse, Past President of NCTE, founding Executive Director of the Writing Program at the University of Denver, and Professor of English.

This teacher appreciation week conjures lots of thoughts, past and present, about English teachers and why they matter. I think foremost to my own children’s teachers, in high school and before then. Susie Thetard, Diane Walker, Claire Lamonica, Bob Neuleib, and Kathy Clesson, each at various times NCTE members, taught my three kids extraordinarily well, in both the practical and the creative arts of language. They inspired writing as well as reading, speech, and theater, in addition to classroom English. Like so many good teachers, they followed with keen interest what my kids have been up to well after graduation.

I think, too, on my own English teachers, now decades past. Mr. Leahy in seventh grade, in a small town Iowa junior high, had us do a radio play. I performed as a ghost. Mrs. Smith, in high school, was the first person to comment generously on my creative writing.  Whether she saw quality in the prose or poetry or whether she simply sensed a boy who liked words, she helped me publish stuff in the local paper. Two years ago I had a chance to once again meet my eighth-grade teacher, Mrs. Scherer, now in her 80s, and she congratulated me on being elected president of NCTE. That’s a humbling thing.

So many of my college professors were active in NCTE, and they introduced me to the professional world of teaching, a world in which smart people knew things about what worked and why—and also knew what we didn’t know. I got the important sense early on that if you were going to be an English teacher, you needed to be in concert and community with other English teachers. Carl Klaus, Louise B. Kelly, and Jix Lloyd-Jones (a past NCTE president) were all foundational.

I know I’m looking back, but partly that’s to remind all of us about the long sweep forward of good teachers, whose efforts ripple gently in the future, now and then washing up on a shore of realization and appreciation. When I talk with NCTE members today, whether they’re teaching in a university or in a grade school, I’m struck by the new constraints they face. Folks who haven’t been in a classroom since they were themselves students certainly aren’t shy about the “common sense” wisdom they have regarding literacy and assessment. I so appreciate those teachers—and they are legion—who put up with everything from well-intentioned bad advice to outright ignorant criticism, finding ways to teach their students what their professional expertise compels them to do. That might even include helping a nerdy sophomore boy write a short story when the conventional wisdom “knows” that doing so is a waste of time.

Reprint from May 2016.