It’s time to honor the teachers who helped make America great

It’s the highest civilian award in the United States — the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Just the other day, we saw President Barack Obama bestow the award on deserving Americans who made their mark in film, television, philanthropy, science, music, basketball, law, finance and higher education.

What he did has been done by all other presidents — Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush — since the award was instituted by John F. Kennedy.

He didn’t include a K-12 teacher on his list.

And yet it’s often those teachers working in that age bracket who do the most to inspire children and give them the skills to make their mark on the world.

Think about why the medal is awarded — “for especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, or world peace or cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”

Are we to believe a great teacher isn’t as important to America as Yogi Berra or Michael Jordan or Tom Brokaw or Diana Ross?

Obama, who gave the award to the four aforementioned, knows better. Last year he talked about the lasting influence his fifth-grade teacher, Mabel Hefty, had on him.

“I credit my education to Ms. Mabel Hefty just as much as I would any institution of higher learning. She taught me that I had something to say — not in spite of my differences, but because of them. She made every single student in that class feel special.”

When Obama talked about Hefty last year, he was in the midst of honoring Shanna Peeples as the 2015 National Teacher of the Year.

That’s wonderful, of course. But it doesn’t give the best in the teaching profession the same Presidential Medal of Freedom stature as, say, the best in Major League Baseball or the National Basketball Association.

Keep in mind that one of the major reasons young people today give for not wanting to go into teaching is the lack of respect the nation gives for the profession.

That lack of respect has started at the top for almost 50 years.

Many of the best and brightest Americans understand they couldn’t have risen to the top without great teachers.

What they’ve told journalists about their teachers is the best reason to include teachers in the next round of those honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Maya Angelou said it was her teacher, Mrs. Flowers, who encouraged her to read. Because of Mrs. Flowers, she said she went to on to love and write poetry. Millions have enjoyed her poetic voice.

Bill Gates said he wouldn’t be where he is today without his math and drama teachers.

“There’s no way there would have been a Microsoft without what they did,” Gates has said.

What kind of world would it be today without Microsoft?

Hilary Swank, an Oscar-winning actress, said her elementary teacher, Mr. Selleret, gave her the confidence to enter acting. He directed her as a little girl in “The Jungle Book.”

Oprah Winfrey, who’s beloved by millions of people worldwide, said her fourth-grade teacher made her embrace a love of learning and helped her not to be afraid to be smart.

“I know I wouldn’t be where I am today without my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Duncan,” Winfrey has said.

Tom Brokaw said his schoolteacher, Mrs. Frances Morrow, helped him be creative and had him reading above his grade level. She helped give him the confidence that served him well in his broadcast journalism career.

I could go on. But you get the idea.

Until now, the educators who largely have drawn the attention with the medal of freedom are those who have done wonders at a university or have started a literacy program, or a school overseas for the blind. Those are all incredibly important.

But there’s no reason not to ensure that K-12 teachers are recognized for their importance to America. Simply put, America would not be where it is today without them.

No, we cannot ensure that every teacher worthy of the highest civilian award gets it. But we can at least ensure that some do. And we can at least begin to show how much a noble profession means to our country.

That I had the chance to write this today is because of my eighth-grade teacher, Vivian Grice, the best teacher I’ve ever known.

Paul Harasim’s column runs Sunday, Tuesday and Friday in the Nevada section and Monday in the Health section. Contact him at or 702-387-5273. Follow @paulharasim on Twitter

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