This commentary was submitted by volunteer contributor Matthew Rector, Program Administrator, First 5 San Francisco.
For seven years, I’ve stood in the White House with America’s finest public servants; private sector innovators; our best advocates, athletes, and artists. And I have to tell you there are few moments that make me prouder than standing beside our nation’s best educators. Every year on this day we say publicly as a country what we should be eager to say every day of the year, and that is, ‘Thank you’.
– President Barack Obama, on National Teacher Appreciation Day, May 3rd 2016.
As staff here at First 5 San Francisco, I can’t claim much in common with President Obama. But earlier this week, Mr. Obama and I shared something very important: a deeply felt appreciation for and pride in the accomplishments of the education workforce.
We expressed it in similar ways, too. On Tuesday, National #TeacherAppreciationDay, the President conducted a recognition event at the White House where he described with great coherence, among dozens of award-winning educators, the importance of education to our collective good and many great achievements in the field by some those in attendance.
Later that evening here on the west coast, as emcee for our third annual Excellence in Teaching Awards – where five outstanding local early education teachers and a teaching team were honored for their remarkable work in preschool classrooms around the City – I stumbled through the agenda; lost my words; choked-up, and bombed every joke because, well, I’m not the President.
But like the President, I helped present a program that elevated our collective consideration of teaching from its unenviable position in the market economy to where it belongs, as Mr. Obama said, every day: the place it really and undeniably holds in our hearts. Alongside the most esteemed occupations that help to form and secure the foundation of civilization. To where it is recognized as “the profession that launches every career”. To a place, frankly, where there is one currency driving commitment of talented people to do great things, and that is love.
And in the hall that evening, it circulated so freely. “I came to see one teacher, but I cried for them all,” said one supporter.
While the grade school-aged son of one teacher issued so tangibly his fluttering admiration that it might’ve been caught by a butterfly net, if we’d brought one.
To dwell in this place awhile on that night, with a couple hundred like-minded folk at Fort Mason Center, was almost utopian: on display was the beautiful, relational quality of great teaching in early education. It shined in a way that confirmed the influence held firmly by these strong women. They are formidable individuals; forces with which to contend. It was as if we shared the hall with political elite, or the very rich; and were compelled to savor the privilege of enjoying every moment at hand.
And each honoree brought with them a cadre of supporters who seemed to never stop arriving, their free-flowing joy uncontainable. And the relationships between them and their laureates shined so genuinely in their interactions, smiles, affections, and enthusiasms. They formed six dynamic, pulsating galaxies in that hall, each with their own character and gravity. To step into this event was not simply to acknowledge, honor, praise, thank, and celebrate. It was to witness the history-making power of good teaching; to marvel at the people who do it well; and cherish the real worldly effects of the interplay between talented teacher and the process of our learning.
Something else the President said resonated with the tone we tried so hard to strike that night: “Part of the reason this event is so important is for us to be able to send a message to future generations of teachers. To understand, this is a dream job. You will have more influence than in any other field you can go into.”
The next day, we received an email from one of our attendees that said, “I just wanted to write you because I and my children enjoyed the last night event. My 9 year old daughter said, ‘They inspired me, I want to be a preschool teacher.’”.
Then what? “Then she started practicing her speech pretending that she was the one receiving the award!” Thank a teacher? #MessageReceived.
Matthew Rector is in his tenth year working with First 5 San Francisco on the city-funded Preschool for All (PFA) initiative.