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America's Top Teacher Gives Tough Assignments - And Plenty of Support

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Just as Draper had several Mrs. Bradys in her life, she has become one of those memorable teachers that change lives. One boy, a senior student Draper called the worst of the worst, showered her with expletives one day, and eventually quit school before graduating.

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"He called me several years later and asked me to write a college recommendation for him," she says. "He had found himself, and wanted to go to college. I told him that I would have to say he failed. He said, 'But you knew I had potential.' "

So Draper wrote a qualified recommendation. "He went to college and graduated, then into the Army as part of Desert Storm," she says. "When he returned he brought me a rose, and apologized for his behavior. Now he's a teacher in Atlanta."

Draper loves writing and poetry, and uses both to engage students. "I started writing poetry because kids didn't like the poetry in the books," she says, "and we started working on poems together in class. If it's a nice day we'll go outside and sit under trees and write poetry, and come back in and read them."

She has published five books. "Tears of the Tiger," for high school readers, won the American Library Association's Coretta Scott King Genesis Award as the best book for young adults in 1995.

Long a champion of all teachers, Draper says the media should pay more attention to the unsung heroes of education.

"Reporters like to focus on all the negative things in schools," she says. "Nobody ever covers the third-grade teacher loved by all the kids, and who sends the kids off to the fourth grade so well prepared. There are hundreds of these teachers all over the country who deserve recognition."

Sharon Draper on the Touch of a Teacher

(The following is an excerpt from a 1995 essay by this year's Teacher of the Year.)

Four hundred years ago someone taught Shakespeare to love the language and to make it sing through the ages. Lincoln, Thoreau, King, Sandburg - all had a teacher who prepared the vision and gave them the courage to fly to its heights. What unknown heroes and artists cower in the darkness, untouched and uninspired?

... Teachers struggle to reach lofty goals, to reach the needs of the students, to merely reach the end of the day. Very little recognition or reward is given for a job on which rests the knowledge of the past, the responsibility of the present, and the hope of the future.

... Sports heroes and entertainment personalities, who provide merely social and recreational release, are willingly and cheerfully paid multimillion-dollar salaries, while teachers, without whom the society would be unable to progress intellectually, are given a pittance and expected to appreciate it. A civilization that honors athletes over intellectuals, that lauds entertainment while denigrating education, that philosophically separates teachers from the ranks of professionals is a society in danger of destruction.

... The next century will bring discoveries as yet undreamed. Students must be prepared to become scholars of the universe and will need teachers who can provide them with a memory of the past as well as a vision of the future.

... If the best young minds of today are not encouraged to become the educators of tomorrow, who then will teach the children of the 21st century? And if a system of financial support, social recognition, and professional development does not exist for those who choose to accept the awesome task of teaching, the educational system will fail, and with it will fail the chances of success for civilization.

* From the booklet "What Governors Need to Know About Education Reform," by the Center for Policy Research/National Governors Association.