When Sharon Draper was a child in Cleveland, the steps of her front porch were a make-believe school. "We had seven or eight steps," she says, "and we'd play first grade, second grade, and you moved up the steps each grade to the top step. I was always the teacher."
Recently, with President Clinton at her side, Mrs. Draper literally reached that top step. After 27 years of teaching English at Walnut Hills High School in Cincinnati, Ohio, she was named National Teacher of the Year in a White House ceremony.
She was recognized for "her ability to help students comprehend the complex relationships that exist in the world," and for her many contributions to education.
Draper - whose recognition coincides with PTA National Teacher Appreciation Week, which begins today - says she always wanted to be a teacher. "Although my parents never went to college," she says in a telephone interview, "they were educators. They read to me, helped me do homework, and were always there encouraging me to be a good student."
In 1995, Draper became one of the nation's first 150 teachers to receive National Board Certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.
But her senior students are more likely to know her as that demanding, caring, and creative teacher who requires a major research paper at the end of the year, the one turned in the day before the prom.
When each student plops the paper on Draper's desk, she offers congratulations and hands out T-shirts that say, "I survived the Draper Paper."
"I don't think kids have changed much at all over the years," she says of the many students she has taught. "If you look at a child, he has questions, needs, and abilities. You deal with his needs, answer his questions, and move him to the next step. Today the world is so complicated, and it is commonplace in all schools to have drugs, gangs, violence, divorced parents, and abusive relationships. These are what get in the way of kids, and their school experience."
Draper, who has four children of her own, is the 46th National Teacher of the Year chosen by the Council of Chief State School Officers, and Scholastic, Inc. Every year the chief state school officers in each state nominate a state candidate. The national winner is chosen by a committee of representatives from 14 leading education organizations in the nation. After Draper concludes teaching this year, she will travel the country as a spokesperson for education.
In addition to Draper, the top finalists this year were: Jan Mitchell, a language-arts teacher at Marshalltown High School in Marshalltown, Iowa; Rosalind Hurley Richards, a fifth-grade teacher at Squires Elementary School in Lexington, Ky.; and George Abshire, a seventh-grade mathematics teacher at Jenks East Middle School in Jenks, Okla.
By the time Draper was in the sixth grade, she had read all the books on the children's side of the neighborhood library. "I had to get a special card," she says, "to go to the big side, as we called it, and read the books there."
After high school in Cleveland, she traveled west for undergraduate years at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., and then earned a masters degree at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. From the teachers who taught her, and from her own classroom experience, she concludes that above all a teacher has to inspire students not only with knowledge but steady enthusiasm.
"I have probably forgotten most of the French Mrs. Brady taught me in high school," says Draper, "but I'll never forget Mrs. Brady, and if I ever go to Paris, I'll remember what I need because of the kind of attitude she had toward learning French. She made French fun, and because of that it has become a part of my being."
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.
"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.