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Reflecting on ‘Miracle Worker’ Teachers

May 28, 2008 at 6:50 PM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: Finally tonight, as the end of the academic year approaches, guest essayist Nancy Gibbs of Time Magazine celebrates great teachers.

NANCY GIBBS, Time Magazine: Close your eyes and think of a great teacher. Do you see Annie Sullivan, the miracle worker, Mr. Chips, Robin Williams?

ROBIN WILLIAMS, Actor: Why do I stand up here?

NANCY GIBBS: Or your own private stars, the chemistry teacher who starts the year by writing his name in ethanol on the blackboard and setting it on fire, the fifth-grade teacher in the inner-city school who, on the first day of class, gives his students temporary acceptance letters from colleges across the country, or the teacher who, when she wins a thousand-dollar prize, turns around and gives it to the school band for new instruments?

Come watch Marguerite Izzo, New York’s teacher of the year for 2007.

MARGUERITE IZZO, Fifth-Grade Teacher: You know, I can remember being on the steps in my elementary school, thinking about the incredible power that a teacher has.

And I wanted to be that powerful person. I wanted to make children’s lives better. I wanted to make children think beyond what they had, thought they were capable of.

Meanwhile, Maybella (ph) borrowed paper towels, cleansers, buckets, mops and a vacuum from the janitor’s closet. She couldn’t make up her mind.

I say that I do five shows a day or six shows a day. And I do it five days a week. That’s the way I feel. And I have to bring my A game to every single one of those shows.

You went for the mono chromatic black-and-white thing, Nick?

STUDENT: I’m just outlining right now.

NANCY GIBBS: She has her fifth-graders lie on the floor and paint the undersides of their desks to experience what Michelangelo was up against trying to transform the Sistine Chapel. When she’s not teaching students, she’s teaching teachers.

MARGUERITE IZZO: It’s the profession that all other professions are based upon. We have this enormous responsibility. We have these students in front of us every single day. And it’s up to us to educate them, to bring them the content knowledge that they have to have, but to do it in a way that students feel safe and that they feel loved.

NANCY GIBBS: Teaching sometimes seems like not one profession, but every profession. We ask them to be doctor and diplomat, calf-herder, map-maker, wizard and watchman, electricians of the mind.

This being an election year, teachers are topics. Barack Obama wants teacher service scholarships. We pay for school, if you teach four years in a tough town. Hillary Clinton wants to leave behind No Child Left Behind. John McCain, who famously drove his teachers mad with his mischief, has a troops-to-teachers plan that would guide Iraq and Afghanistan war vets into classrooms.

Voters say they would be willing to pay for better schools. But when asked what is the most important issue facing the country, twice as many cite gas prices or health care and eight times as many say the economy.

I hope that most teachers love their work as much as Marguerite Izzo does, like when she describes the look in the first-grader’s eyes when words suddenly make sense and it just takes her breath away.

She and her colleagues at the middle school in Malverne, New York, are like star-gazers who catch a glimpse of comets as they fly by, see a distant light grow brighter and clearer under their instruments.

Is that the reward? Heaven knows we don’t pay them enough, and we certainly don’t thank them enough. For what is not perfect, we are quick to blame; for what is miraculous, we’re slow to acknowledge.

The National Education Association polled teachers about what gift would make them feel most appreciated. The winner by a mile? Not a spa day or a gift certificate, flowers or an apple; just hearing someone actually say, “Thank you.”

Gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder, Chesterton said. I wonder that we are not more expressly grateful to those whose influence on us never ends.

I’m Nancy Gibbs.