‘To teach is to touch a life forever’: A tribute to dedicated teachers

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Teo Chuen Tick proposes a toast to teachers everywhere, past and present, who are mindful of their important role in educating the young minds under their charge.

Teacher’s Day is nowhere near but after watching McFarland USA on television the other day, I would will like to write this tribute to teachers, wherever they may be. “To teach is to touch a life forever” is the meaningful phrase on a refrigerator magnet a close friend gave me.

I have not seen any local films that pay tribute to exceptional teachers, but I have no doubt there have been and there are unsung heroes/heroines everywhere in our country, striving to the best of their ability to make a difference in the lives of students under their care.

To cynics and those critical of the teaching profession especially in our country, I hear you and I am not blind to the fact there have been teachers who should not be in this noble profession.

But this piece draws inspiration from the efforts of Jim White, who formed a cross-country team of seven Latino runners at McFarland High School, California. Through his guidance, that team won the 1987 championship, and his influence was so monumental that all members of that team went on to escape the cycle of poverty in their lives and became the first in their families to go to college or take up military careers.

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Almost all members of that team continued to attend practice with successive school cross-country teams that Jim White was coaching even after graduation from college. Many of White’s former runners credit him with inspiring them to achieve personal and career goals they would have otherwise deemed impossible.

So, this piece is intended to be focused on the good teachers can bring. McFarland won that 1987 state race because one of its runners, Danny Diaz, performed above expectations. This made up for the below-par performance of one of the team’s more accomplished runners, and Diaz’s run was instrumental in the team’s victory.

Jim’s pep talk to the team before the start of the race, as portrayed in the film, was inspiring and drew upon the team members’ less privileged background to spur them to give it all they had in the race – and more. So again, we have an example of the power of the spoken word – and White’s confidence and belief in his team – paying dividends.

Jim White’s success drew the attention of the more established high school teams. He was offered better pay and more perks to cross over. Instead, he went on to coach the McFarland team for many more seasons: the school won nine of those championships.

The story line of the film portrays him as making that decision, with the encouragement of his wife, knowing that in McFarland he could really make a difference to the lives of underprivileged kids. She reminded him of the personal and tremendous support of the local community towards his team.

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I end by proposing a toast to teachers everywhere, past and present, who are mindful of their important role in educating the young minds under their charge; who try their best within their own personal limitations to discharge their responsibilities well. They may not be Jim Whites but their students will surely remember them with fond memories and respect.

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Teo Chuen Tick
Teo Chuen Tick, a former teacher trainer, is interested in political developments in Malaysia. He became an Aliran member as part of his ‘retirement project’ to give something back to society.

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