Jesse Stuart lesson: Good teaching builds character, changes lives

Jesse Stuart — famed writer, teacher and school administrator in rural Kentucky — focused on character development in students.
Jesse Stuart — famed writer, teacher and school administrator in rural Kentucky — focused on character development in students. File art

As a teacher, I am always excited to read an inspiring book about the profession. Recently, I discovered “The Thread That Runs So True,” an autobiographical story written in 1949 by Jesse Stuart, who was a teacher, principal and superintendent in rural Kentucky in the 1940s and ’50s.

While it makes for fascinating reading, what struck me most were Stuart’s views on the teaching profession. He believed that the most important job of schools is to promote character development.

With today’s focus on preparing students to land high-paying jobs after graduation, I wondered if we still place a value on character development.

To answer that question, I asked Whitney Walker, a government and geography teacher at Lafayette High School and winner of the 2017 Earle C. Clements Innovation in Education Award.

She said that the message she wants her students to take home is this: “You are a citizen of this community. You don’t get to sit back and not participate.” She wants her students to invest in their neighbors. How does she achieve that goal in a geography classroom? She creates many opportunities for students to get to know and care about each other. She said that in the classroom it’s important to “create such an environment that everyone realizes they have a voice.”

One assignment she gives to small groups is to find things they have in common. The students then have to tell her something new about someone from their group. In this way, she learns their stories and they learn each other’s. And she offers her own stories, so they can get to know her, too.

In the 1940s, Stuart was going on hikes or to square dances or weddings with his students. He said he had no discipline problems; he and his students were like a family.

By learning each other’s stories, Walker is also creating a safe family environment in her classes. Instead of apple pickings and weddings, you’ll find her at concerts and plays and sports activities, because her students have told her that they want their teachers to see them. They don’t want to be spoken to only once or twice a year.

This investment in each other pays off. She’s had fewer issues with discipline and more instances of students empathizing with each other and feeling free to bring problems to her or another classmate. This environment has enabled her to be a positive force for change in her students’ lives.

Recently, one student asked for her help to bring people in the community together to embrace our differences after a demoralizing incident. A 1,000-person gathering in downtown Lexington was the result. Walker admits it takes time to create the kind of classroom environment where kids feel like they can be themselves; but once it’s in place, the students want to learn.

But what about kids from bad home environments? Is it possible to have a lasting positive effect on them?

Walker says, “We’re each a leg of the table: parents, teachers and the community. Teachers can only do the best they can do.” She says any teacher can create a classroom environment that is conducive to growth, whether it’s social studies, computer science or math.

Her philosophy echoes Stuart’s, who said, the school room “was the gateway to inspire the nation’s succeeding generations to greater and more beautiful living with each other: to happiness, to health, to brotherhood, to everything!”

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Walker’s great-aunt was a schoolteacher in rural Kentucky, who had a framed quote from Stuart hanging on her wall. It said, “Good teaching is forever and the teacher is immortal.”

Good words to keep in mind.

Donna Guardino of Lexington is an ESL instructor. Reach her at guardidj@yahoo.com.