“It’s the most important job in the world, bar none, save that of parent,” says Ruth O’Quinn of Alexandria, La., who spent her entire career in public education.
“Teaching is a calling, and most successful teachers are usually those who feel genuinely called to the profession,” the long-time member of Alexandria’s Emmanuel Baptist Church said in a telephone interview.
O’Quinn knew she wanted to become a teacher as a third-grader in the small north central Louisiana town of Pollock. “Every day when my younger sister and I would come home from school, we would play school, and I would be the teacher,” she recalled. “My sister was in the first grade, just learning to read.”
As young as she was, however, O’Quinn noticed a problem. “My sister was not reading very well, even toward the end of the first semester. She had simply memorized her book with its illustrations and was reciting the words back to me.”
When O’Quinn told her mother what she suspected, her mother investigated and discovered it was true. And Ruth O’Quinn’s lifelong love of reading, learning and making sure others could do the same was stoked.
“I think it’s fair to say that I did not choose teaching,” she said. “Teaching chose me.”
What set O’Quinn apart is what characterizes every great teacher: she put the best interests of her students ahead of everything else. That priority motivated her, an already busy teacher and mother, to attend every Rapides Parish School Board meeting, where she held board members accountable and criticized their decisions when politics got in the way of quality education.
“I knew we could do better than we were doing,” she said.
It was this conviction that led her to retire from classroom teaching, specifically so that she could run in 1986 for a seat on that school board.
“I really did not think I would win,” she said. “My opponent was a very popular incumbent. But the students needed a spokesperson, and I believed I could be that for them.”
To finance her campaign, O’Quinn sold some personally held shares of stock and put the money into a special account. “I didn’t want to be beholden to anyone,” she explained, reflecting the trademark tenacity still evident now as she speaks passionately about the importance of public education.
Early on election evening after the polls had closed, O’Quinn’s phone rang. It was that “popular incumbent,” calling to congratulate her on her victory.
“I actually was stunned that I had won,” she said. She would go on to serve for 12 years.
“I think what must have happened,” she joked, “is that many of my former students campaigned really hard for me, because they wanted to make the lives of some other people as miserable as I had made theirs as their teacher.”
Actually, former students were largely behind her campaigns and subsequent victories, but not for that reason. They instead likely wanted to do something to thank her for teaching them how to think for themselves. That is what her literature classes were always designed to do.
“Woven throughout literature are so many moral and spiritual values,” she said. “And while a teacher must be very careful not to indoctrinate students or force personal spiritual beliefs on them, the teacher can allow students, as they read and study literature, to identify and raise those on their own and within that context.”
“I think it’s important to recognize the diverse faith traditions from which students come and provide them the opportunity within the classroom to express through the lenses of their faith their understandings of life and the lessons literature teaches us,” she continued. “Everyone learns and becomes richer in the process.”
“I always encouraged my students to voice their opinions. I wanted them to think for themselves, and I especially wanted to teach them how to argue, because doing so forces them to back up what they say.”
O’Quinn’s classes, particularly her senior literature class, focused on helping students develop a lifestyle of learning to reason, think, explain and respond appropriately and respectfully.
Would she choose to become a public school teacher again?
“I could make no other choice,” she replied. “The public school classroom is so much more difficult today than when I taught. Parents are not involved to the same degree or at the same level. Many students show no respect for teachers or parents or even for themselves. And for that reason we must not give up. There is so much at stake.
“I’m not happy with the way things are in most of our public schools, but the answer is not to abandon them. The answer is to work to improve them. When we allow a student to graduate from high school without the ability to read and to think, we cheat not only that student but also our entire society, and we put its future at great risk.
“We have a democratic society because we have public education. It is that venue that educates students to become citizens, voters and public officials. If we do not work to improve public education and we lose it, our democracy is threatened.”
“Public education is foundational to democracy,” she stressed.
That’s one reason it bothers her, she said, that so many elected officials have already abandoned public schools and are sending their children to private schools. “If their children attended public schools, those schools would gain more attention and support, and all students and our entire society would benefit.
Although the basic essentials in any school are teachers and students, O’Quinn says, continuing public support is vital.
“Teaching is a calling. As surely as ministers are called, so are teachers. I became a teacher because I wanted to have a part in positively influencing children.”
This former student is grateful she did.
Jan Turrentine is managing editor of Acacia Resources, publishing imprint of the Baptist Center for Ethics.