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In Other Words: Today's teachers leave legacies in many ways

"A Legacy of Excellence" was the theme of the Mitchell School District Employee Recognition Ceremony. This theme prompts me to reflect on teachers who influenced me. One was never in my classroom, and his legacy is forever in my lineage. Uncle Jack (my late father's younger brother) was born in 1929 in rural North Dakota. Per my request, I had him write a few notes about his and dad's school days.

His account mirrored a Laura Ingalls Wilder story. He mentioned the scarce amenities and challenges of teaching at that time. He stated the school yard's barn served both as the "recreational facility" and sheltered the students' horses. Additional features included his-and-her outhouses. Jack noted teachers had to master multi-tasking by presenting course work to all grades in one room while maintaining control. Most teachers in this venue were also charged with custodial duties.

He wrote, "The main difference between the country school and the town variety was that all grades and their respective academic courses were taught within easy earshot of everyone else. By the time one graduated, he or she heard the course material of each grade no less than eight times." Jack said it took a "special kind of person" to teach then. He shared a time when he was a fourth grader and his teacher left and her replacement lasted one day. Apparently, the Putnam kids and the other students' shenanigans were too much. The replacement was none other than my grandmother, who was an experienced and disciplined teacher. Eleven years later, Jack began teaching in a country school. He soon realized the difficulty his predecessors experienced. When he started his career, grandmother continued teaching and became a mentor. Jack wrote, "Eventually, I learned to enjoy it, especially seeing a 6-year old happily learning to read, and I look back on my country-school experience with nostalgia and considerable satisfaction." Jack subsequently went on to earn a doctorate in history and years ago retired from a distinguished career in collegiate teaching at California State University.

I periodically receive letters from Jack. He often reminisces about his time in school. His editorials on contemporary issues are relevant, and the parallels from teaching then and now are striking and they are from an experienced voice. My dad would often speak of Uncle Jack with much pride and adoration. I am forever grateful to Jack for inspiring me to pursue a career in public service and develop a respect for education.

I share this story to illustrate how teachers from preschool to postsecondary and public to private schools are leaving legacies in tangible and intangible ways. Tangible measurements are student achievement scores, graduation rates, co-curricular activities and higher education degrees. As a school board member and an officer of the state school board association, I see and hear evidence of South Dakota teachers making a difference and working hard, and the aforementioned measurements prove this. However, I would caution us from fixating on standard testing. Scores are important, but they shouldn't be the sole measurement. Citizenship, character, adaptability, communication and continuous learning are difficult intangibles to measure, but equally important.

Therefore, in recognition of National Teacher Appreciation Week, I pay tribute to Uncle Jack. His legacy of excellence has passed through his mother, brother (dad) and me. Jack, on behalf of the 6-year-old you taught to read 60 years ago and the thousands you have taught since, thanks. To all of you, find the legacies of excellence in your lives and tribute them this week and join me in thanking them.

Neil Putnam is a member of the Mitchell Board of Education. He pens a column each year during National Teacher Appreciation Week.

In Other Words features opinions from local and other contributors who have areas of special interest or expertise. Material shouldn't exceed 600 words and can be sent to: The Daily Republic, 120 S. Lawler, Mitchell, S.D., 57301. Not all submitted material will be used.