Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: What Does a Teacher Make?

Our children and young people are getting back to the classroom. Whether it is kindergarten or college, and whether they know it or not, these are the most profoundly important years of their lives. If the world ever becomes a better place in which to live, it will be primarily due to the influence of the home, the classroom and the church. Let us confine our attention to the classroom today. Class is in session.

When I think about the people outside of the home who had the most profound influence on my life, a long list of teachers immediately comes to mind. The list begins with Pearl Reynolds and Dorothy Broughton who each taught three grades in a two-room school house in Bermuda, a rural community in South Alabama. The list covers 21 years and ends with Carroll Wise at Northwestern University and Ed Dixon (the only black teacher I had in 21 years) at Cook County Hospital in Chicago. These people made a difference in my life. They were my teachers.

Now, let me tell you a story. This story was originally written as a "poem" by Taylor Mali in 1999. The original contains language I am not allowed to use--in a column. This is a sanitized version in story form.

The dinner guests were sitting around the table discussing life. One man, a CEO, decided to explain the problem with education. He argued, "What's a kid going to learn from someone who decided his best option in life was to become a teacher? It is true what they say about teachers: 'Those who can, do, those who can't, teach.'" To stress his point, he said to another guest: "You're a teacher, Taylor. Be honest. What do you make?"

Taylor, who had a reputation for honesty and frankness, replied, "You want to know what I make? Well, I make kids work harder than they ever thought they could. I make a student who achieved a C+ feel like the Congressional Medal of Honor winner. I make kids sit through 40 minutes of class time when their parents can't make them sit for 5 minutes without an iPod, Game Cube or movie rental.

"You want to know what I make? I make kids wonder. I make them question. I make them apologize and mean it. I make them have respect and take responsibility for their actions. I teach them how to write and then I make them write. Keyboarding isn't everything. I make them read, read, read.

''I make them show their work in real math. They use their God-given brain, not a man-made calculator. I make my students from other countries learn English, while preserving their unique cultural identity. I make my classroom a place where all my students feel safe. I make my students stand, placing their hands over their hearts to say the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag, because we live in the United States of America.

" I make parents tremble in fear when I call home. I hope I have not called at a bad time. I just wanted to talk to you about something Billy said today. Billy said: 'Leave the kid alone.' It was the noblest act of courage I have ever seen.

"Finally, I make them understand that if they use the gifts they were given, work hard, and follow their hearts, they can succeed in life. Then, when people try to judge me by what I make, knowing money isn't everything, I can hold my head high and pay no attention because they are ignorant. You want to know what I make? I MAKE A DIFFERENCE.

What do you make, Mr. CEO?"

His jaw dropped and he went silent. Hmmmmmm.

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