Peter Smagorinsky is Distinguished Research Professor of English Education at the University of Georgia. This is another installment in his series on great Georgia teachers.
“My students are the best in the world, and I am so very fortunate to have the opportunity to teach, work with, and learn from them every day.” Lauren Eckman, 2013 Georgia Teacher of the Year.
By Peter Smagorinsky
Lauren Eckman graduated from Macon’s Wesleyan College summa cum laude in 2004, and has taught English/Language Arts ever since. A high achiever herself, she is like a lot of people who go into teaching: She hopes to accomplish much by promoting the growth of others.
Intelligence when combined with a nurturing disposition, a sense of altruism, an understanding of human development, and a dedication to working hard to benefit others can produce instructional brilliance. Lauren embodies these traits in service of a population that is out of sight, and thus out of mind to many.
Lauren, you see, teaches at the Georgia Academy for the Blind. Blind people are considered by most people to be disabled, and thus of lesser potential to contribute to society. But disability is a function of circumstance, not an absolute condition. Turn out the lights, and you’ll find out who is disabled. The blind are the ones who’ll lead you into the light.
GAB is a special place. Founded in 1852, the school has an overarching goal of helping visually impaired youth to reach their highest levels of independence and potential. This mission is focused on both the skills needed to navigate environments designed for the sighted, and a standard academic curriculum to prepare them for life as active, contributing citizens.
Seeing their potential and learning how to cultivate it are unusual skills undertaken by rare people. The state of Georgia is indeed fortunate to have a school that houses such a committed, selfless faculty and administration.
Former Georgia School Superintendent John Barge has noted Lauren “is highly proficient at differentiating instruction and making strong connections with her students.” Both traits are common among outstanding teachers in general. Each child is unique. Just ask their parents. Teaching them as assembly-line products might be efficient, but leads to an alienating, impersonal education that undermines students’ engagement with their studies.
In contrast, many believe that effective K-12 teaching, at its heart, begins with the cultivation of relationships between teachers and students. These relationships enable teachers to encourage students to follow instruction that takes them into new, perhaps threatening intellectual territory. Building such a rapport seems particularly important when trust is fundamental to learning.
At GAB, a nurturing personality requires unusual degrees of patience for a teacher’s academic assistance to realize its benefits. I wish policymakers like Arne Duncan understood the range of dispositions and capacities that go into good teaching, instead of being so narrowly focused the reductive measures by which he believes students, teachers, and administrators should be solely assessed.
Lauren started at GAB as a student teacher, and then took a permanent position as part of a greater calling to serve. Lauren’s goal was never to become rich and famous, but instead to elevate her students: “My success as an educator can and should be measured by the success of my students,” she has written; “thus, I believe that my greatest accomplishment has been assisting my students to attain high levels of achievement.”
And, my oh my, does she succeed. She had a 100 percent pass rate on the Georgia High School Graduation Writing Test for seven of eight years leading to her Teacher of the Year recognition, and has sent many students to college (and ultimately graduate school), technical schools, and immediate employment in such fields as technology, criminal justice, social work, and pharmacology. This trajectory is unusual for visually impaired teens, of whom about 12 percent attend college.
Last summer, the AJC’s Get Schooled blog published an essay by Rosalynn Carter on the horrid, inequitable conditions of students classified as disabled. She reported that in Georgia, such students often get third-class treatment, segregated in schools with shabby facilities that isolate them from their peers and that are punitive in nature. GAB seems unique in providing a highly specialized environment that helps visually impaired youth keep pace academically while also learning how to manage their lives in a world they cannot see.
It takes a rare perspective to recognize that lacking a trait like vision, while disabling in many contexts, is not a life sentence to a lesser life. Rather, it is a condition that requires adaptation, not only of the blind, but of the people around them. These people include those whose taxes support their education, those family members and friends who surround them, those from faith communities and other social support groups, and those who work directly with them in schools.
As Rosalynn Carter has argued, too many children are denied their basic civil rights when their bodies don’t conform to what others believe is the norm. Viewed as deficient and of no account, they are considered to be deserving of the inferior and hard-hearted surroundings to which they are confined.
We are very fortunate to have GAB and teachers like Lauren Eckman working with one population whose potential requires special guidance to be realized. I hope the good people of Georgia see how the work of this faculty and administration can serve as a model for other groups whose growth is stunted by tight-fisted budgets that deny them opportunities to grow into the people that their potential allows.
I appreciate the work Lauren and her colleagues do in Macon. I hope one day to see their success emulated in schools in which the students’ life possibilities are cultivated in the context of caring educators working in material environments that are healthy, safe, adaptive, and supportive.