Teachers and Teaching

Gratitude for a Celebration of Educators

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We are accustomed to reading depressing stories about demoralized teachers who are leaving their profession. They were demonized before the pandemic and during the pandemic, accused of not working hard enough and expecting more pay, blamed for flat test scores, and denounced for worrying about being exposed to the coronavirus. And many of those teachers said they could no longer tolerate the nonstop criticism.

You can only imagine how exciting it was to attend a gala where educators were celebrated and appreciated.

Last Friday, I attended the annual awards dinner hosted by St. Joseph’s College, which has two campuses, one in Brooklyn and the other in Patchogue on Long Island in New York. The College was founded by the Sisters of St.Joseph in 1916; the Sisters urge the teachers they prepare to work in public schools, where they are needed.

I attend the event every year with my spouse Mary, who is a 1969 graduate of the College and a member of its Board of Trustees for the past fifteen years. Mary had a long and successful career (35 years) in the New York City public schools as a teacher, department chair, principal, and executive director of a citywide program to help hundreds of other principals. She loves the College, and the nuns who educated her, many of whom had doctorates from prestigious universities. She has often told me that her favorite teacher, Sister John Raymond, said that it was far better to be looked over than overlooked. Tell every child that you notice what they did right. Tell them you like their new haircut, their last paper, and their improved behavior in class. Catch them being good.

The College has a strong tradition of preparing teachers and others who work in the public sector. It infuses its graduates with a sense of service and a desire to “give back” and “pay it forward.” Most of its graduates enter the fields of education and nursing. The first person in New York City to get a COVID vaccination shot was a nurse who graduated from St. Joseph’s.

The President of St. Joseph’s since 2017 is Dr. Donald Boomgaarden, a scholar of music, concert pianist, and country fiddler. He is a charismatic yet humble leader, the right leader at the right time.

But the reason I’m sharing this story is because the event was a celebration of educators, and in a time of cultural gloom, it was a joyful and inspiring tribute to those who give their lives to teaching.

The motto of the College is “Esse Non Videre,” which means “To Be, Not to Seem.” All of those who won awards are literally in the trenches, working in public schools, many of them working with children with disabilities. The woman who was selected as “administrator of the year” is principal of a school in Maryland where all the students are profoundly disabled. In the video that preceded each award, she spoke of her gratitude to do the work she wanted to do. The Educator of the Year is a district superintendent whose parents were immigrants; she has worked in the New York City public schools for almost 40 years. The “Legacy in Education” award went posthumously to Joseph Lewinger, who died of COVID at the very beginning of the pandemic; he was a beloved educator and coach at The Mary Louis Academy in Queens, New York City. His wife accepted the award for him. He was the only awardee working in a Catholic school.

In all the videos that accompanied the Elementary Teacher of the Year award, the Secondary Teacher of the Year award, the COVID-19 Educators, the Rising Stars, and the Educator of the Year award, certain words and phrases recurred: “I was born to be a teacher.” “I’m exactly where I am supposed to be.” “I can’t imagine a better job than the one I have now.” “St. Joseph’s made me the person I am now.” “Service.” “Dedication.” “I always keep learning and growing.” And as Joe Lewinger said to his students, “Rise.”

It was a beautiful, inspiring evening. No complaining. No whining. A celebration of the people who give their lives to educating the next generation.

It was comforting and inspirational to spend an evening applauding these heroes.

What a lovely way to enter the Thanksgiving break, giving thanks to those who serve our society, educate our children, and create a better future.

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