ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
The greatest thing Tracy Taylor-Callard learned from her own elementary-school teacher is that school can be fun.
“She made me want to come to school every single day and learn as much as I could,” Taylor-Callard told a roomful of education and public-speaking students at Tabor College Friday.
“I wanted to be the best I could in school for her-and more than that, I wanted to be an elementary teacher just like her and inspire other kids to love school just the way she had done for me,” she added.
It would appear Taylor-Collard is achieving her goal. In November, she was named Kansas 2002 Teacher of the Year and last week was selected as one of four finalists for National Teacher of the Year.
The national winner will be announced in April. She down-played her qualifications for such an award but not the merits of her profession. Sometimes sounding more like an evangelist at times than a teacher, she made a convincing case.
“I’m always excited when I meet young people who want to become teachers,” she told the students. “I’m not kidding: It is the greatest profession you could possibly imagine. I’m really excited that you’re thinking of joining us. You will love it if you decide to do it.”
Taylor-Callard described how others influenced her away from her dream of teaching when she left college. She taught for two years, then pursued a more lucrative career in corporate law.
Taylor-Callard called that move a huge mistake.
“So I went back to teaching and found my dream job,” she said. “I have not regretted that decision for one minute.
“If you are truly dedicated to becoming a teacher, then do it,” she added. “Don’t let other people’s ideas of what’s a worthwhile career for you dictate what you’re going to do. If you want to develop in your life, then do something that when you get up every day, it’s what you want to do. Do it because you love it.”
Taylor-Callard chose a challenging context in which to invest her enthusiasm. She currently teaches fourth-grade at Horace Mann Foreign Language Magnet Elementary in inner-city Wichita.
“More than half the children who go to school in the inner city of Wichita live below the poverty line,” she said.
At Horace Mann, she said, 95 percent of the kids live below the poverty line, 87 percent come from minority populations and about 65 percent don’t speak English as their first language.
“A lot of people look at the kids with whom I work and say they’ll never succeed,” she said. “There’s a lot of stereotypes and prejudices everywhere because people continue to believe that kids from different ethnic backgrounds don’t want to learn, that somehow they’re bad or different or have bad behavior.”
Nothing could be further from the truth, she added firmly.
“If you plan to be a teacher, something you need to know is that those people are absolutely, 100 percent wrong,” she said. “Kids who come from diverse backgrounds, including ethnic and minority students and students who live in poverty, are as enthusiastic as any other student.”
She admitted that’s a conclusion the average person would never reach by watching how the entertainment media characterize inner-city schools-a genre that she ridicules.
“My husband and I watch ‘Boston Public,'” she said. “We just crack up because it’s just ridiculous. It’s absolutely pure fiction.
“Inner-city kids are just plain-old kids,” Taylor-Callard said. “They’re kind, they’re funny, and they’re full of excitement about learning.
“They’re no harder to teacher than any other kids,” she added. “In fact, I have found that many of my inner-city kids are more compassionate and caring than most grownups I know.”
Taylor-Callard said kids who grow up facing hardship appreciate “every little thing” a teacher does for them.
And for the teacher who makes learning fun, that can be a lot.
“As a teacher, you’ll have great power over the lives of kids, and you can use that power to do fantastic things,” she told her audience.
“You have the power to prove to your students that if they set their minds to it, they can do anything. If their goal is learn all they can learn, they will do it, and it will make an enormous difference in their lives.”
Teachers may not be highly paid or universally held in high esteem. But that doesn’t mean the profession, when done right, isn’t enriching.
“Kids being excited is really your greatest reward in teaching,” she said.