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Public Papers - 1990 - April

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


Well, to the Members of the Congress and Senate that are here today, thank you all for coming, and welcome to the White House. Secretary Cavazos, Senator Pell and Representatives Lowery and Hunter, and Bill Keene and Gordon Ambach, Robert Gwinn, Norman Brown, and specially to our distinguished Teacher of the Year, Jan Gabay, Barbara and I are honored to have you all here.

The kind of people Jan represents are ambassadors to the most powerful province mankind might command, that great undiscovered realm right under your hat. For almost 40 years, the Teacher of the Year program has singled out the few, really because they represent the many. The program's goal is not to identify ``the best'' teacher but the best in all teachers. All teachers are different, of course, but the best have a special kind of energy that ushers ideas to minds, and ideals to souls. They unleash the imagination and turn young eyes toward brilliant constellation of human aspiration and experience.

Maybe it's the pace of history, the pulse of the natural world, or the power of reason; but whatever, America's best teachers are teaching. They all understand that learning is not a spectator sport. The value of knowledge is not in the having but in the sharing. And wisdom is not received: it is pursued.

You might have heard it said that knowledge isn't found in books. In one sense, true. There's nothing intrinsically helpful about a book -- just black marks on a few white pages. But in hands that know how to hold them, how to embrace their ideas and deliver them whole, a book can change a life forever. Those who breathe life into ancient texts have seen that power, seen those words explode in brilliance in a young mind. Through teachers and their students, the ideas of the past are sustained, and the ideas of the future are defined.

And if the life of the mind is one of both work and wonder, I'd like to introduce a man among us today who's lived that life better and longer than anyone else. He was born in 1889, the son of a former slave. He served in the First World War, became fluent in 6 languages, earned 11 degrees, and taught school until he was 81. That alone would be impressive enough. But at the age of 100, he still practices law and still attends law school seminars with the eagerness of a first-year student. Try to praise him, though, and he'll bawl you out, saying, ``There's nothing extraordinary about me.'' And he told me that I was the second President that he's met; the first was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. [Laughter] But having met him, I know this is a risk to praise him, but I have to disagree with him. I hope you'll join me in commending a man who may be America's most seasoned scholar, John Morton-Finney. Would you stand up please, Mr. Morton-Finney? [Applause]

One lesson we might take from Mr. Morton-Finney is this: If he's still ready and willing to learn, so can we all be. And if he's always looking for new ideas and new ways of thinking, so must the entire system of American education.

A year ago this week, here in the Rose Garden, across the way, I sent legislation up to Congress to help reform and restructure America's schools. Today I want to appeal to the Members of Congress to move on those initiatives.

We've already moved in concert to bring a sense of direction to education reform. We've held the first-ever summit with the Nation's Governors, and we've set ambitious goals for our students, our schools, and ourselves -- rallying points for the progress we all know is greatly needed now. But what we must remember, above all, is that education is more important than politics. And while our '91 budget request for education is the largest in American history, our progress won't be measured by bureaucracies built and dollars spent. It will be measured by results and by what our children learn and accomplish.

If we judge our students by their thinking, we must judge ourselves by our own. And there are cases of very creative thinking about education going on right now, ideas for reform that hold promise for the rest of the Nation.

In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, because of a grassroots movement made up largely of poor, inner-city parents, a new experiment in choice is applying the leverage of competition and stimulating change. Thanks to Polly Williams, once a welfare mother of four and now a State legislator, low-income parents can choose to send their kids to private nonsectarian schools, with money from the public school system's budget paying ,500 in tuition for each student. Choice empowers people, and it puts competition to work, improving schools for every student.

In Kentucky, an entirely new philosophy of management is being put into place which is based on accountability. The school system is being decentralized, with local districts gaining control over our operations and individual schools gaining more autonomy overall. The State is managing a new system of rewards for teachers and administrators, including biyearly awards up to ,000 and leaving curriculum questions to the local districts.

That kind of creative thinking is government's best role in education: setting goals, providing incentives, and then demanding accountability. But as crucial as good government is, we all understand where the real action is: it's in the hands of our teachers. And that's why we're here today: to recognize a teacher who represents our best.

Her story began with a little collection of books spread out on hardpacked earth beneath a wooden stairway, where she played school with her younger sister. To Jan Gabay, those books revealed an imagined life of seekers, sages, and students -- a life Jan has since chosen to make real for herself and the students she teaches. Over the past 17 years she has developed her power to motivate minds, to give kids a sense of wonder and bless them with a life of possibilities unimagined in ordinary moments.

She says her goal is to help her students find and refine the ``knowledge, skill, and talent that they do not know they have.'' But she understands that a real education goes far beyond acquiring skills: it instills a lifelong love of learning. ``Accepting simple competence,'' she says, ``is the antithesis of what I believe education really is: an unending quest to understand the world by using one's mind and to understand the self by knowing one's heart.''

Jan always tells her students that she has succeeded because of them. In that spirit, it is also true that our schools will succeed because of people like her.

So, it is an honor to have you here, Janis Gabay, and to name you the 1990 National Teacher of the Year. God bless you for all you're doing for those kids.

Note: The President spoke at 2:15 p.m. in the Roosevelt Room at the White House.

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