Public Papers

Remarks at the Presentation Ceremony for the National Teacher of the Year Award


Thank you, Lamar, and welcome, everybody, to the Rose Garden. In addition to our outstanding Secretary Lamar Alexander, we have with us Gordon Ambach of the Council of Chief State School Officers; Superintendent Schiller and Michael Emlaw from Michigan; the kids here from Jefferson Junior High and St. Rita's School; and of course, the folks that I just had the pleasure of meeting in the Oval Office, Tom, Diane, and Malcolm Fleming and Diane's mother, Josephine Rosinski. Why don't you all just stand up so they can officially welcome you. Thank you.

Well, we're all here today to salute and thank the thousands of outstanding men and women who educate this Nation's children. There's no calling greater than a teacher's because there is nothing more precious than what they touch: the minds of our youth. The Talmud says teachers are our protectors, and that's true. By teaching our kids what we've learned and by teaching them to dream, teachers protect the treasures of our past and the promise of our future.

Today I want to share a story about a Detroit kid brought up by his grandparents, Gordon and Carrie Bell Starks. He struggled in school, was labeled a slow learner, and when he dropped out of high school, he couldn't read or write or spell. He didn't think that mattered, but one day it did. His faith became tremendously important to him. And he wanted to read the Bible, but he couldn't, didn't know how. From that moment, he thought about what it would really mean to take charge of his life. And that moment changed his life. And 5 years later, after he dropped out, he enrolled in night school to learn how to read his Bible and earn his high school diploma. He went on to Bible college while working as a minister to kids like himself in northwest Detroit. And here he found he had the power to touch and to change lives.

He decided to become a teacher and worked with forgotten kids at a State institution for juvenile offenders. And there's an old saying, ``Whoever would be a teacher of men, let him begin by teaching himself before teaching others, and let him set an example before teaching by word.'' And that's exactly what the young man of this story did. And we're here today to honor him as the 1992 Teacher of the Year, Thomas Fleming.

He's a hero, a man of great strength, of courage and great heart. And for the last 20 years, as lead teacher in the Washtenaw County Juvenile Detention Program, he's taught history, government, and also geography to kids in the 12-to-16 age bracket. But he teaches much, much more. To kids who've had hope drained out of them by a vicious cycle of abuse, neglect, failure, drugs, crime, he gives life training. And here's what he says to them, ``Knowledge is power. The more you know, the more you're worth.'' In these throwaway kids he installs pride.

Tom doesn't want the moon for his kids; he wants something more important, a future. And in his classroom it will be a future forged out of new personal responsibility, enthusiasm, and learning, and yes, hope.

Some of his kids have gone on to respected civic and religious positions. One even rebuilt Tom's original youth club as a ministry of his own. And one of his kids, ``Saturday Night Live'' comedian A. Whitney Brown, is here with us today. Whitney, please stand up, and welcome. And I'm glad you didn't bring Dana Carvey. [Laughter]

No, but this guy spoke for many of Tom's kids when, more than 20 years after being taught in his classroom, he dedicated his book, ``The Big Picture,'' to Tom and to his colleague Anne Klein, who is also here today. And he called them ``two teachers who made a difference.''

Well, I have a feeling this crystal apple over here isn't as important to Tom as his other rewards: seeing the first spark of light in a kid's eye or even just having a kid who never before had been able to read ask him for a book from the public library. But the apple does symbolize the respect with which Tom's country views him. And the apple reminds us of Tom's message: Education is important because every life can be redeemed, every life counts.

Whether you're concerned about the big issues that shape our world or about the values close to home, education is a fundamental part of the three precious legacies Americans take to heart: strong families, good jobs, a world at peace. Every day on the most intense and personal level, Tom Fleming sees the heart of the problems we face: the breakdown of families, the loss of traditional values, the lure of crime and substance abuse, the dead end of unemployment, and hopelessness. But he knows that good teachers will help us find a solution. For with every student you teach, you shape a future and you touch a lifetime.

But teachers cannot exist in isolation. Our tremendous respect for them and our utter conviction that education is the key to our country's future led us to develop America 2000, a revolutionary blueprint for educational reform. It will lead us to achieve our six national education goals, adopted, as you may remember, more than 2 years ago in an extraordinary nonpartisan Federal-State partnership by the Nation's Governors and by this administration. And let me remind you just briefly of these six goals which will propel this Nation forward into excellence:

By the year 2000 our children will start school ready to learn. America's students will achieve at least a 90-percent high school graduation rate. They will demonstrate competence in five core subjects measured against world-class standards. And by the year 2000 our children will be the first in science and math. Our adults will be literate and able to compete in the work force. And sixth, finally, our schools will be safe, disciplined, and drug-free.

We'll achieve these goals by advancing four transforming ideas at the heart of America 2000:

First, flexibility for teachers and principals, freedom from the web of Federal regulations that impose a one-size-fits-all solution to our schools;

Second, a generation of new American schools. Teachers are critical to this exciting break-the-mold experiment in what education can be;

Third, world-class standards and voluntary national exams. Again, teachers are leading the way in defining standards, creating curriculum frameworks, developing exams to help us raise our sights and measure our performance;

And fourth and finally, parental choice of schools, public, private, religious.

Now, our plan is innovative. It is exciting. It is uniting this country. And it will work. Changing our schools is too important to wait or to waste a generation. And that's why education is one of the five urgent reform challenges that I've been talking about. We know we've got to be competitive in a changing world. We can't go on sending our children into the working world undereducated and ill-equipped and expect the business community to spend billions teaching new workers what they should have learned in school. Status quo schools simply will not carry us into the next century.

We set our goals for the year 2000 because we know our economic health, our economic survival depend on how we educate ourselves to face the challenges a new century will bring. Tom and the thousands of men and women like him will help us meet those challenges.

Teachers know that real excellence demands commitment from everyone in every community as we work to create communities where learning can happen. It demands that talented men and women give time to become tutors and mentors. It demands that businesses, churches and synagogues, and civic groups join together to support local schools. It demands that every citizen help his community develop a plan of action based on America 2000 and help the Nation reach these national education goals. Together, we literally will reinvent the American school, community by community, neighborhood by neighborhood, all across this country. And at the heart of this shining new school will be, as always, the teacher.

Last week at the Oscars, George Lucas, filmmaker, might have captured it best when he thanked the teachers of his childhood. And he said, ``All of us are teachers, teachers with very loud voices. But we will never match the power of the teacher who is able to whisper in a student's ear.''

And so, Tom, on behalf of all Americans who have had the rare and priceless privilege of having a fine teacher whisper in their ear, congratulations. You teach the one lesson that matters the most. There's no distinction between who you are and what you do. You've woven the values of your life into your work. And thank you, sir. And may God bless you.

And now I have something special for you. This apple is the traditional symbol of teaching, and crystal represents the clarity of vision and commitment that the great teachers possess. And so, on behalf of a grateful Nation, an admiring Nation, with great pride in you, sir, congratulations. Now, may I hand you this apple.

Note: The President spoke at 11:22 a.m. in the Rose Garden at the White House. In his remarks, he referred to Robert Schiller, superintendent of public instruction for the Michigan Department of Education, and Michael O. Emlaw, superintendent of Washtenaw Intermediate School District, MI.