Teacher of the Year: Public education is not broken

By Cecilia Ruth Marcus | May 10, 2013

Editor’s note: Cecilia Ruth Marcus, this year’s Teacher of the Year, made the following remarks at the Haywood County Schools Foundation’s Partnership in Education scholarship dinner. She is a Tuscola High School teacher.


Since I was a little girl, I knew that I wanted to be a teacher. Some might say that I felt a “calling” to teach. It was not until I was in 11th grade that I knew the subject I wanted to teach.  I took Advanced Placement United States history with Mr. David Stamey.

For the first time history came alive.  The historical lectures he delivered in class were amazing.  The amount of comments he wrote on our writing assignments had to have taken hours upon hours.  It was evident that he put so much time and effort into the class because he cared so much about his students.  Teaching was not a job for him; it was a calling.  All of his students wanted to do well because they did not want to disappoint him and that is why they worked so hard.

I bet we all have a story like mine — about an influential teacher who inspired us.

Parents, please know:

• Students are doing better than they have ever done before. Public schools are not broken. It is hard to counter that argument with films being made like “Waiting for Superman.”

• We are teaching more students with more “baggage” than ever before with higher standards and we continue to do better. This is not indicative of a broken system.

• People are hearing the message that the system is broken but they don’t know the facts.

There has been a push to provide choices and opportunities, but is there a choice for all our kids?

What about students with no support at home? Public schools provide all kids access to their dreams.

It reminds me of Jamie Vollmer’s story:

Jamie Vollmer represented a group of business people dedicated to improving public schools. He went around and talked to teachers across country.  He was an executive at an ice cream company that had become famous in the middle 1980s when People magazine chose his blueberry as the “Best Ice Cream in America.”

He was convinced public schools needed to change and needed to be run like a business.

During one of his talks, a veteran, high school English teacher began quietly.

“We are told, sir, that you manage a company that makes good ice cream.”

He smugly replied, “Best ice cream in America, ma’am.”

“How nice,” she said. “Is it rich and smooth?”

“Sixteen percent butterfat,” he crowed.

“Premium ingredients?” she inquired.

“Super-premium! Nothing but triple A.” He was on a roll. He never saw the next line coming.

“Mr. Vollmer,” she said, leaning forward with a wicked eyebrow raised to the sky, “when you are standing on your receiving dock and you see an inferior shipment of blueberries arrive, what do you do?”

“I send them back.”

She jumped to her feet. “That’s right!” she barked, “and we can never send back our blueberries. We take them big, small, rich, poor, gifted, exceptional, abused, frightened, confident, homeless, rude, and brilliant. We take them with ADHD, junior rheumatoid arthritis, and English as their second language. We take them all! Every one! And that, Mr. Vollmer, is why it’s not a business. It’s school.”

And so began Jamie Vollmer’s long transformation.

Since then, he visited hundreds of schools. He learned that a school is not a business. Schools are unable to control the quality of their raw material. They are dependent upon the vagaries of politics for a reliable revenue stream.

But conditions are changing and teachers need the tools to change. We want kids to wake up in the morning and want to go to school. It starts with a relationship with students.

If you look back and remember what teachers had an influence on you (like Mr. Stamey for me), it is not the content that they taught but you remember how they cared about you.

Please keep in mind that it is important right now to show appreciation to our teachers since our job has gotten so much harder; so much more is demanded of teachers with fewer resources.

It is important more than ever to let every teacher know that they are appreciated because my fear is that people will leave this profession or not go into this profession if compensation is not there, if there is no sincere gratitude, if the job is getting harder. Then who will educate our children? We all know the importance of education in our society and how influential teachers are in their students’ lives.

I encourage everyone to tell teachers and show teachers that they are appreciated.