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Good teachers truly do make a difference in students' lives

Rochester Business Journal
May 17, 2013

In my last column, I wrote about how a teacher's expectations, good or bad, can affect a child. Shortly thereafter, I attended an event and a meeting that further reinforced what I had written.

The first event was a reception for Outstanding Undergraduate Scholarship Award recipients at Rochester Institute of Technology. I have attended many such receptions over the years, but this one was different. Not only were the students recognized, but it was on the condition each invite the one teacher who made the most difference in his or her life and describe how that teacher had made a difference.
It was one of the most heart-warming events I have ever attended.
Students told how teachers saw something in them that no one else had seen; how teachers had inspired them and their interest in subjects in which they had not had any interest and, in some cases, seemingly had no talent. Students told how teachers had mentored them and believed in them, some even before they believed in themselves.
For these outstanding students, a teacher clearly was a motivating force, teaching them good habits, awakening in them a love and passion for learning and an area of study, increasing their self-esteem and self-confidence. How powerful is the belief of a teacher in a student's potential!
The meeting I attended had nothing to do with school or young people or their potential; it was a business meeting. But I soon found out the Rochester school system in the early 1980s was one of the top districts nationwide in reading performance.
How did that happen?
The school system in 1974 hired Mary Burkhardt as director of reading. Mary believed the problem with poor student performance was not that students were dumb. It was that students did not have good reading skills and became very discouraged after failing on a daily basis. So Mary started teaching children to read in a very hands-on fashion.
As a result of her belief that children could learn to read, and by utilizing her program to teach them to learn to read, students did learn. And because they could read, they not only performed better in other classes, they excelled. Mary told me she wrote the foreword to the out-of-print book, "Why Johnny Still Can't Read: A New Look at the Scandal of Our Schools" by Rudolf Flesch, which talks about the success in Rochester.
Unfortunately for the city of Rochester, administrators in the Rochester City School District decided not to keep Mary. She left in 1981 and joined Eastman Kodak Co., where she had a stellar career. As for the Rochester school system, it started its slow decline-something that current Superintendent Bolgen Vargas is starting to change.
But a limiting factor is the teachers in the school system.
If, as indicated on a recent TV program about our school system, RCSD continues to have teachers who don't believe in the potential of their students and their ability as teachers to make a difference, there is really only so much a superintendent or principal can do. It really is up to the teachers or, if a kid is lucky, a caring adult, who can ignite their potential.
dt ogilvie is dean of the E. Philip Saunders College of Business at Rochester Institute of Technology.5/17/13 (c) 2013 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email

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