Remarks at a White House Ceremony Honoring the National Teacher of the Year

April 9, 1984

The President. Well, it's a pleasure to see you -- and I'm going to say ``again'' to some old friends and meet some new ones. And I'm especially happy to see the students here from Ballard High. It was very kind of all of you students to chaperone Mrs. Sisney and make sure that she doesn't get into any trouble while she's here. [Laughter]

This is the 33d White House ceremony honoring the National Teacher of the Year and the State Teachers of the Year. And always, in all those years since Harry Truman, the President himself or a member of his family has personally given the award. And I think it's a clear expression that -- the high regard in which you're all held.

You hold a critically important place in the life of our nation, not just because of the skills you impart, though that in itself would be enough, but because you shape the future by shaping the adults of the future. And you do this by being the kind of people that we would want our children to become. I'm not sure that yours is the most unsung profession, but you work with quiet confidence and little fanfare, and so many teachers do not receive the praise they deserve.

I remember a scene from Robert Bolt's play, ``A Man for All Seasons,'' that speaks of this. Sir Thomas More is talking to his friend, Richard Rich, a bright young man who's full of ambition and eager to make a name for himself, and he ponders going into law or politics. Sir Thomas tells him, ``Be a teacher. You'd be a great one.'' ``And if I was, who would know it?'' the young man asks. And Sir Thomas answered, ``You, your pupils, your friends, and God. Not a bad public, that.'' Well, I'm here to let you know that the President's part of the public, too.

In an important way, teachers set the tone for society. I don't think there's one of us in the country who doesn't remember a teacher who made a difference in our life, one who steered us in the right direction or showed faith in us early on or encouraged us when things weren't going well. It was a teacher who steered me into acting, an English teacher named B.J. Fraser, back in Dixon, Illinois. He's gone now, but I somehow can imagine him standing back there someplace and saying, ``But I take no responsibility for his going into politics.'' [Laughter]

I noted, by the way, in her biographical sketch that Sherleen Sisney became a teacher partly because of the influence of one of her high school teachers, also an English teacher. And, now, Mrs. Sisney is America's Teacher of the Year.

There's another way you set the tone. When children are just starting grade school, teachers are the first representatives they meet of the world outside the family. And when these teachers are gifted, when they encourage and communicate the excitement of learning, then children learn to be eager about the world and optimistic toward it.

There's another thing that teachers do, a quiet thing that isn't usually noted. For lonely children, children from troubled families who don't get enough attention at home, for them the classroom becomes a kind of family and the teacher their parent -- sometimes, the only parent from whom they receive affection and understanding.

You know how it is with young children when they aren't loved. They think themselves unlovable, and that's the beginning of trouble. But when a teacher comes along and gives that child attention, shows him or her kindness and makes them feel special, then for the first time, the child feels self-esteem and self-worth. And they blossom in the warmth.

Your kindness and the values you live by echo down the decades, shaping the adults, the citizens they'll become. And that's why, as Henry Adams said, ``A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence -- or her influence -- stops.''

All of this puts great demands on you, and I just hope that you know how much this administration is on your side and eager to help. But right now, I want to stop for a moment because I want you to hear a few words from another president.

Tracy Wright is the president of the senior class at Ballard High School. Tracy?

Ms. Wright. Thank you. Mrs. Sisney is most deserving of this award, not only because she's an outstanding teacher in the professional sense but also in the human sense. She's a caring teacher who wants only the best for her students. By using such techniques as ``learning by doing,'' Mrs. Sisney causes students to think for themselves and to rationalize certain situations. Possessing strong leadership abilities and commitment in the school and also in the community, Mrs. Sisney is respected by both her colleagues and her students. On behalf of the Ballard student body, it is with much pride that I congratulate you, Mrs. Sisney, on this great accomplishment. We love you.

The President. Thank you very much.

Ms. Wright. Thank you.

The President. When I first came into office, I was very disturbed by what teachers were being forced to contend with in America's schools. Somehow in the sixties and seventies, people decided that discipline was old fashioned and high standards unnecessary. It made teaching so difficult that I admire all of you who endured all of that and held on.

Secretary Bell and others have been working long and hard to turn it around. And we're still a long way from where we want to be, but already the indications are good, and working together with State and local governments, we are turning it around. Since 1980 more than half the school districts in the country have moved to tighten course requirements. Forty-six States are making graduation requirements tougher, and now all 50 States have special task forces in education.

We want most of all to restore all honor to this profession and to all who are among America's most overburdened and underpaid professionals. So, we're working on merit pay for teachers, because they deserve to have their excellence rewarded and because the decision to become a teacher shouldn't be a decision to endure financial sacrifice for the rest of your life.

And now as I end these remarks in this great, old garden, I realize I haven't even touched on the part that you play, the vital part in keeping democracy and the democratic spirit alive. Thomas Jefferson noted this when he said, ``If you expect the people to be ignorant and free, you expect what never was and never will be.'' The ongoing experiment called democracy, the longest continuing experiment in human history, cannot exist without an informed citizenry, and cannot exist, therefore, without you.

We owe all of the teachers of America a debt we can never pay, but I mean to honor all of them today by honoring you. And so, I may say to you, Mrs. Sherleen Sisney of Ballard High School in Kentucky, and to all the State Teachers of the Year, may I say what Presidents say when they give medals for courage and extraordinary contributions: I thank you on behalf of a grateful nation.

And now, it's been a long time since I've been able to bring an apple to the teacher. [Laughter] Mrs. Sisney, congratulations.

Mrs. Sisney. Thank you so much. We appreciate all you're doing for children. That's just beautiful.

The President. Well, our pleasure. Congratulations, again.

Mrs. Sisney. Thank you.

The President. I think that concludes the ceremony.

Note: The President spoke at 2:05 p.m. in the Rose Garden at the White House.