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Teachers Receive Due Praise at Graduation


Graduation is a time to look ahead and a time to reflect, and there is no time like the present to begin planning your school's best commencement ever. This year, take a page from the book of higher learning and recognize not just the graduates but the elementary and middle school educators who helped them to get there. Included: Why recognizing teachers benefits students too.

This article shares information about a special Williams College program that recognizes exemplary high school educators who had big influences on the college's students. This idea got us thinking that Graduation Day in many other grades might be a perfect opportunity to recognize great teachers in students' lives.

"There is no way to adequately describe how it feels to have a student indicate either by words or actions how much what you did as an educator affected them," says Scarlett Gaddy. "It literally fills your heart with joy."

Gaddy was one of five secondary teachers who were recently awarded the 2006 Olmsted Prize for Excellence in Secondary School Teaching from Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Nominated by graduating senior Sarah Louise Smith, the Tuscaloosa (Alabama) educator teaches social studies at Hillcrest High School. Gaddy's ability to bring politics to life through mock elections and class debates drew the admiration and appreciation of Smith.

"My personal philosophy of education for citizenship requires the use of a variety of methods and strategies," explained Gaddy. "I expose my students to many sources of information in addition to their textbook and provide as many opportunities for hands-on learning as is possible."


The overriding goal of Gaddy's classroom is not just to instill interest in learning but to reinforce citizenship skills. She uses technology through Web pages and blogging and gets students involved with community activities and service projects. For years she has sponsored school-wide mock presidential elections when Americans have gone to the polls.

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Olmsted Prize recipient Scarlett Gaddy believes that giving students the opportunity to recognize their teachers is positive for everyone.

"We attempt to build character through education, and there's no better way to emphasize character than to encourage students to appreciate their education and to acknowledge when someone has contributed to their long-term well being," said Gaddy. "Educators accomplish this through hard work and caring, and they need to know that their efforts have borne fruit. Many new educators never make it past the first five years. It's a difficult and demanding profession. It helps reenergize your sense of purpose to know that you have made a difference."

Gaddy was moved by the entire experience of being recognized during the Williams College commencement exercises. "I remember thinking as Sarah Louise and I were standing by the podium while the Williams speaker read my introduction to the audience, 'This is the most incredible moment in my professional career,'" recalled Gaddy. "I wanted to remember it clearly."

The Olmsted Prize was established in 1984. Each fall, the president of Williams College invites members of the senior class to nominate a teacher who has contributed significantly to his or her intellectual and personal growth. On average 35-50 nominations are submitted. A committee of seven faculty members reviews the entries and selects 20-25 finalists. These individuals are contacted and asked to share a resume and other information, and their principals provide additional information.

Then the committee makes its final selections. The winners and their schools receive cash awards, each is presented with a citation, and they are invited to attend commencement to be formally recognized. Expenses are paid for the nominee and one guest. In its 22-year history, Williams has recognized 92 men and women. Coming from elite private schools to rural communities, all curricular departments, and areas from Maine to Nepal, the group is as diverse as its student body.

"Educators are bombarded almost daily with information about the perceived failures of the education system, and while individually we may recognize that we are working hard to accomplish our professional goals, it is depressing to think that our efforts continue to be perceived as inadequate," observed Gaddy. "I have been quite fortunate that my former students have reappeared at the most critical points in my career to reaffirm my belief that teaching is the most important contribution I can make to society. I cannot think of any other profession that has longer lasting effects."


A faculty member whose son attended Williams College learned of the Olmsted Prize and brought the concept back home to the University of the South. The school in Sewanee, Tennessee, adopted it and began recognizing secondary teachers at its commencement events in 1997. Seniors nominate high school teachers who have "played important roles in their lives."

"We support effective teaching at the secondary level and know that it is important to our students and to the well-being of the nation," explained Rita Kipp, dean of the college. "Devoted teachers all too often receive little recognition for their efforts, and students have too few chances to reward them."

"I have been quite fortunate that my former students have reappeared at the most critical points in my career to reaffirm my belief that teaching is the most important contribution I can make to society."
--- Scarlett Gaddy

A faculty committee chooses one or two winners per year, and each of the finalists is presented with a cash award and is invited to attend and be honored at commencement. The teachers take part in a commencement luncheon and receive an award certificate. Their travel expenses are also reimbursed. Today the university is considering ways to encourage even more students to nominate deserving educators.

In Ithaca, New York, 36 graduating seniors are recognized each spring as Cornell University's Merrill Presidential Scholars. They in turn recognize a high school teacher who inspired their scholastic development and a Cornell faculty member who most contributed to their education and experience.

The high school teachers visit the university to be recognized with their former students and take part in two days of events. For each teacher, a one-time $4,000 STAR (Special Teachers Are Recognized) scholarship is created for a financially needy Cornell student from the teacher's high school or geographical area.