MAXWELL:  A heartfelt tribute to teachers

5/5/1996 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Teachers, I believe, are the most responsible and important members of society because their professional efforts affect the fate of the earth.

_ Helen Caldicot, author and peace activist

Of all of my teachers, Coach Bernard Irving had the most impact on my life. Standing well over 6 feet and weighing about 230 pounds, he was our high school’s one-man athletic department. He coached everything _ football, basketball, softball, track, boxing, wrestling, soccer and even fencing _ and played every sport expertly.

Because our school had the smallest student enrollment in our conference, we lost more often than we won. And here is where Coach Irving was a formidable presence. Somehow, this gentle man could make a bunch of losers feel like victors. One year, our football team lost every game. Even worse, we did not score a single touchdown until the final minutes of the final quarter of the final game. Coach did not berate us. Instead, he made that one touchdown a reason to celebrate, to joke and laugh about the season’s misadventures, to hoist the player who had run the touchdown onto our shoulders.

Coach, who also was a good chemistry and biology teacher, secured a football scholarship for me to attend college. I would not have gone to college if he had not helped me. To this day, I feel his presence. He taught me and the other children at our all-black school to be tough: to accept reality with as much good cheer as possible, to withstand adversity with dignity, to forge ahead with purpose despite the obstacles.

Wherever you are, Coach Irving, I thank you for shaping my life, for making me a survivor, for being the great professional you are. And because Tuesday is National Teacher Day, this column is an unapologetic tribute to America’s other Bernard Irvings _ our teachers.

Although they rarely receive thanks, teachers make positive differences in the lives of children each day. The untold story is that, in addition to teaching, most teachers invest in society by going beyond the call of duty, by giving out of their pockets, by giving up their personal time, by nurturing the children of strangers.

But rather than talk generally about the teaching profession, let us focus on a teacher who, as Helen Caldicot said, affects the fate of the world. When I asked several Pinellas County school officials to identify a teacher who routinely serves beyond the call of duty, the name Deloris F. Bell consistently came up. At age 54, Bell has worked for the Pinellas district for 30 years. For 18 years, she was an elementary teacher and now is a family involvement specialist for Title I, a federal effort that teaches basic skills to pupils in elementary schools with higher numbers of poor families.

After most other teachers have gone home for the day, Bell often is on the job, doing what she loves best: visiting the homes of children and their families. “It is important that families are involved in their children’s education,” she said. “I know that all parents want the best education for their children. When parents are involved in their children’s education and communicate with the school and teachers, their children do better in school. We want to have a partnership between school and home to build a close relationship with the teacher, parent and child.”

And that partnership, which includes several intensive workshops, succeeds, in part, because of Bell’s enthusiasm and commitment. In the computer training program, for instance, family members can borrow Macintosh computers and use them in their homes for up three weeks after they complete a two-hour training. In the parenting workshop, Bell lectures and uses videos. “Families have an opportunity to share the joys, tears and frustrations of parenting. This gives them a chance to talk with other parents and support each other,” she said. “Some of the topics are building self-esteem, positive discipline and rearing responsible children. We teach that communication between parent and child is crucial.”

A top administrator said that Bell is one of the district’s most valuable assets. “She will do anything to help the children,” he said. “When we have kids having serious trouble because of low self-esteem, we try to put them in touch with Dee Bell. She works miracles almost every time. Even though she’s busy in school, she’s also very active in the community as a whole.”

Several years ago, after learning of a neighborhood girl having problems at home, Bell went to the state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services and won custody of the child, who lived with Bell for two years. For such efforts, Bell has earned the nickname “Mama Dee.” Throughout the week and on weekends, children congregate at Bell’s home. Many come for companionship, others for the fun, still others to find refuge from various forms of abuse. And at her own expense, she takes children to amusement parks such as Disney World and on educational field trips.

Deloris Bell, like Coach Bernard Irving, represents professionals who, too often, are discounted and made the scapegoat of society’s failings. To the contrary, though, we owe our schoolteachers a huge debt of gratitude. Who, except a teacher, would respond as Bell does when asked to discuss the greatest rewards of her career? “I truly enjoy my job,” she says. “I feel that my experience as a teacher has enriched my life and has given me the opportunity to grow and share my knowledge with others.”

Such unselfishness deserves to be honored on Tuesday _ National Teacher Day _ and on every other day of the year.