It seems to be a universal practice in classrooms to ask students to think about, talk about, and write about the topic of heroism. Teachers frequently ask, “Who are our heroes?” “What are the qualities of a hero?” “What actions are considered heroic?” Often, a common response to these questions is a hero is an individual who goes above and beyond the usual, the expected, or the required, and that a heroic act involves significant courage, risk, and sacrifice.
In my next book, Chalkboard Heroes, which will be available in about three months, you will find the stories of twelve courageous teachers in American history who took considerable risks and made substantial sacrifices. For example, there are the countless teachers who protect our country by serving in the armed forces and the National Guard. If the times call for it, they valiantly march off to war. Henry Alvin Cameron who fought in World War I and Francis Wayland Parker, a Civil War veteran, are but two of these soldier teachers. There are the social reformers, the chalkboard heroes who endanger their personal safety to bring about improved conditions and better lives for America’s disenfranchised citizens. Teachers like Dolores Huerta, the champion of migrant farm workers; Robert Parris Moses, the 1960’s civil rights activist; Prudence Crandall, who defied prevailing social convention to open a school for African American girls; Carrie Chapman Catt, the suffragist; and Zitkala Sa, who campaigned tirelessly for the constitutional rights of Native Americans. There are the courageous pioneers who take great risks to blaze a trail for others to follow. Educators like Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher in space; Willa Brown Chappell, the pioneer aviatrix who taught Tuskegee airmen to fly; Etta Schureman Jones, the Alaskan pioneer who landed in a POW camp in Japan during WWII; and Olive Mann Isbell, who immigrated to the West and established the first English school in California—while the Mexican American War raged all around her. And then there are the teachers who lay down their lives to protect the students whose safety has been entrusted to their care. Teachers like Dave Sanders, the chalkboard hero of Columbine High School.
These twelve are but a few of the countless heroic teachers in American history. Their stories are perhaps all the more remarkable when we consider that in our society, teaching is usually considered a safe profession, classrooms are typically considered safe places, teachers are not usually recognized as risk-takers. The accounts of the twelve chalkboard heroes presented here show us that these perceptions are not at all a reflection of reality.