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There’s no word in the language I revere more than ‘teacher.’ My heart sings when a kid refers to me as his teacher, and it always has. I’ve honored myself and the entire family of man by becoming a teacher.

~ Pat Conroy, Prince of Tides

On the first day of school, I brought my camera along, excited to capture some of the first marks on this year’s blank slate. New students. New teachers. Another chance to change the world.

As I have written before, it is one of the great privileges of my life to work in a profession defined by renewal, revision, and reward. So every year, I send out this message to my teachers.  I cannot take credit for all the words, but the sentiment is sincerely my own.

To great teachers:

Come away with me to your favorite teacher’s classroom … what was that teacher’s name? What made that teacher so special? What was the one thing that teacher said that made you feel there was no better place to be during that time between 8:00am and 3:00pm each day?

Maybe it was the teacher who knew you were good at art and entered your painting in a contest. It might have been the uncompromising, yet caring, teacher who pushed you to do all those extra pages of problems, even when you thought you had already mastered the mathematics. Maybe it was the teacher who cut you some slack because your mother was in the hospital or the one whose mantra was that “you will never earn enough money to do a job you do not love.” Perhaps it was the teacher who, decades later, is the reason why your mind might wander to the agriculture and the economy of the Antebellum South when you use a cotton ball.

Each of us has had this teacher. For me, it was Mr. Jones. When I first encountered him, it was at Antrim Grammar. He was a young man at the beginning of his career. Every day, he wore an ordinary tweed jacket with leather patches on the elbows and a “Save the Otter” badge on the lapel. Naturally, he was well-read, but more importantly, he was accessible. The best reader in the room, be brought vividly to life Chaucer’s Pardoner and other questionable characters, knowing the bawdy exchanges that would most appeal to our adolescent sensibilities. With impeccable timing, he knew when we’d had our fill of Richard Church’s Over the Bridge or the Great Expectations of Charles Dickens. At such times, he would pause to wax philosophical or tell us to underscore in red those chunks of text we should learn by heart:

That was a memorable day to me, for it made great changes in me. But, it is the same with any life. Imagine one selected day struck out of it, and think how different its course would have been. Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.

For emphasis, he would add “Great stuff!” How we loved it when he indulged, with good humor, the odd red herring. In those seemingly random conversations, Mr. Jones revealed a little of his life beyond the classroom and his taste in music – Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Jackson Browne – thereby influencing my own. Then back to business, he would painstakingly guide us through the required reading for O-level and A-level English, the routines and rituals of his classroom elevating an ordinary space into a place of possibility. Every day.

I learned this morning that his professional journey led him to Friends School in Lisburn in 1996. By then, I had spent more than a decade as a teacher myself. It makes me smile to consider the possibility that, on the same day, Mr Jones and I might have been introducing our respective students on either side of the Atlantic, to Robert Frost’s Birches. Imagine my delight to discover in the Friends Summer 2012 Newsletter a tribute to my favorite teacher:

Mr Terry Jones, Senior Teacher, joined the staff at
Friends’ from Antrim Grammar School as Head of the
English Department in 1996. At the heart of his teaching
was an abiding love of literature, an endless enthusiasm for
books and reading, that enriched and enlivened all in his
classroom over the years. At the heart of his work in
school were kindness, warmth and good sense – qualities
that drew the best from pupils and fostered the good
relationships so important in our community.
A man with many interests, those good relationships
extended throughout the staff at Friends’ and Terry
Jones was a most highly valued colleague and friend. Calm
and steadfast in upholding what is really important in
education, Terry Jones made an immense contribution and
his example will be a pattern for those who worked with
him here in years to come. There is no doubt that retirement will be busy and fulfilling and Terry Jones has our thanks and very best wishes for the future

Like Mr. Jones, great teachers are passionately committed to the most important subject – their students. They understand that all children enter the schoolhouse sharing a basic need to feel safe, to learn, to matter.

Is curriculum important? Of course. Will students still have to pass all those high-stakes tests and exams? Probably. In the end, however, it will not be the latest app for that, or Attainment Targets or Common Core standards that students will remember . . . it will be you, their teacher.

I wish you all that you need to be a great teacher today and every day, the teacher your students will never forget.

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35 years later, an opportunity to thank Mr. Jones.

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