Celebrating teachers for making a difference

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Every day, teachers are making a difference in the lives of young people everywhere. On July 23, Ed Schultz, host of MSNBC's "The Ed Show"; opera singer Denyce Graves; and actor Tony Danza paid homage to teachers, including those who had made a difference in their lives, and reflected on their experiences as public school students.

Ed Schultz

A frequent and outspoken advocate for teachers and public education, Schultz told the TEACH "Making a Difference Celebration" that he was amazed—and disappointed—at the lack of respect given to teachers by the media and others. "People who go into [teaching] are the unselfish Americans," said Schultz, whose mother was a high school English teacher.

The television host recalled entering Maury High School in Norfolk, Va., in the late 1960s, at a time when the school was just being integrated. "One of the greatest experiences I ever had was going to an integrated school. I didn't realize at the time how that experience was shaping my life."

Calling himself a proud Democrat, Schultz railed against the takeover of schools by corporations looking to make a profit, the loss of manufacturing jobs that has resulted in the precipitous decline of America's middle class, and school closings in places like Chicago that are taking place almost solely in poor and minority neighborhoods.

Denyce Graves is an example of what a kid from inner-city Washington, D.C., can accomplish when someone believes in her. For Graves, an internationally acclaimed mezzo-soprano opera singer, that someone was Judith Grove-Allen, her music teacher in both elementary school and junior high school.

Denyce Graves

Graves calls Grove-Allen her "guardian angel." It was Grove-Allen who made sure that a young Graves got to all of her practices and recitals, and it was Grove-Allen who took Graves to her first opera. It was also Grove-Allen—who became the assistant principal at Duke Ellington School of the Arts the same year that Graves enrolled there as a high school freshman—who raised money through her church and other clubs and organizations to help Graves attend Oberlin College in Ohio.

"I have the career that I have, the life that I have today" because of Grove-Allen, Graves said. "She saw my potential—and that made me work even harder."

Asked by session moderator Robert McCartney, a columnist for the Washington Post, for their thoughts on some school districts' plans to cut arts programs in order to focus on science, math and other areas, both Grove-Allen and Graves insisted that music and the arts are essential to a young person's development. "It would be a cruel mistake to cut funding for the arts because they provide an outlet for so many kids," Grove-Allen said. "I've had a love affair with music and the natural high it gives me," Graves added.

Tony Danza

In 2009, TV star Tony Danza of "Taxi" and "Who's the Boss?" fame spent a school year as a full-time English teacher at Northeast High School in Philadelphia. The experience gave the actor a deeper appreciation for the role of teachers and how hard they work. "When I was in school, I didn't respect my teacher," he says. "I have learned how hard it is to teach."

Danza says he now realizes the often enormous pressure that teachers are under. "I felt, as a teacher, this responsibility of having these kids' future in my hands."

Saying that he is "proud to have been a teacher" and is now proud to be a voice and an advocate for teachers and students, Danza asserted that educators and schools are up against an American culture that cares very little for kids or their well-being. "Not only does our culture not celebrate education, it undermines education."

The actor was joined on stage by David Cohn, his mentor-teacher during his year as a full-time teacher at Northeast. "David was a model for me," Danza said. "Every first-year teacher should have an experienced teacher they can go to."

Cohn described his role as "instructional coaching 101." He is convinced that providing new teachers, like Danza, with a mentor is critical to keeping them in the profession.

[Roger Glass/photos by Michael Campbell]