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Teachers are society's most undervalued resource


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Education is the great equalizer in our society and the key not only to solving our social problems but to rescuing our children, radio talk show host Tavis Smiley said Thursday (October 25, 2007) in a sometimes emotional and animated keynote speech at the WEAC Convention.

“I believe teachers are the most undervalued resource in our society,” Smiley said to a packed house at the Midwest Airlines Center in Milwaukee. “There is no more noble profession than educating our children.”

Smiley shared several stories illustrating the impact that teachers have on society and on individuals, including one about the 2nd-grade teacher who demanded that he work hard and succeed.

“Here I am a black kid in the 2nd-grade in an all-white school, and Mrs. Vera Graft says to me, ‘Tavis, you have got to quit quitting. You are as skilled, you are as talented as any other child in this classroom. And I will not accept any less out of you. You are not going to underperform, and we are going to do whatever it takes. … We are going to make sure that you perform at the level that I know you are capable of performing at. And I am not going to leave you behind and educate the rest of the kids in the classroom.’

“It was the first time anyone outside of my family said to me that my life was worth it, that I was equally as valuable as anyone else in that classroom … the first time that anyone outside of my family said to me that I am going to make sure, so help me God, that you are going to succeed, you are going to make it, you are going to perform.

“I was a black boy and here is a white woman telling me she loves me enough to insist, to demand, to expect more out of me,” he said.

“In the 2nd grade, Mrs. Graft put that in me and it ignited a fire, and I’ve been running ever since, trying not to let Mrs. Graft down.”

It’s a lesson for all teachers, to recognize that every child is filled with possibilities and needs love and direction, he said. “No investment, no return,” he said. “Never give up on any of these babies.”

“We get what we get from so many of these kids because we expect so little,” he said of students who don’t succeed.

Smiley says he still visits Mrs. Graft at a nursing home, and recently helped celebrate her 93rd birthday there.

“Today, even in the nursing home, she’s still saying, ‘I taught that boy, and I am proud of him’ And I revel in her humanity as she revels in my accomplishments.”

Teachers, he said, are leaders and “to lead you have to love.”

“You can’t lead without loving, and you can’t save without serving,” he said. “What is the depth of your love; what is the quality of your service?”

“We ought to be educating these kids not just to be successful but to be great,” he said. “I don’t’ ask kids what they want to be when they grow up, I ask them who they want to be.”

Smiley said he flew to Milwaukee from Tuskegee, Alabama, where he attended funeral services for the father of his friend and colleague Tom Joyner, also a radio talk show host. The funeral was very heavily attended, he said, in large part because Joyner’s deceased mother was a teacher and had left a huge legacy in the community. Among her former students were musician Lionel Richie and other members of the Commodores.

Tom Joyner and his brother Al are both successful despite growing up in the segregated Deep South, and their success can be attributed to the strong emphasis their parents placed on education, Smiley said. At the funeral, “It hit me what a difference a generation can make if we place the requisite value on education that it deserves.”

While in Tuskegee, he said, he visited the Tuskegee Institute, founded in 1881 by Booker T. Washington to educate young blacks that nobody else would educate. As he drove to the airport, he said, he saw signs for Selma, Montgomery and Birmingham. “I thought of how far we have come, yet I was reminded of how far we have to go,” he said.

Smiley implored the roomful of educators to never lose sight “of why you are doing what you are doing.”

“If what you are doing for the education of our children has, for you, become a job then you need to quit,” he said. “If your vocation, your calling, is not about these babies, then you should change what you do.”

Smiley said it is important that educators have high expectations for all students. Acknowledging the difficulty of the task and the ups and downs that teachers face, Smiley urged the audience to persevere.

“You aren’t going to win every fight, but you have to stay in the game,” he said.

More Convention coverage will be posted over the next few days

Posted October 25, 2007

Education News