Good Morning America correspondent Deborah Roberts is doing her part to make teachers across the nation feel valued. Her new book, Lessons Learned and Cherished: The Teacher Who Changed My Life, is dedicated to educators who made an impact.
“Lessons Learned and Cherished is a love letter to teachers. I didn't know that was what it was going to be,” she tells EBONY. “But the more I began to collect these essays, I started to think, as Oprah Winfrey said, we bow to the altar of teachers.”
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The book is a collection of essays from Roberts and other media personalities like Oprah and Roberts’ husband, Al Roker, as well as some of her close friends. “So many talked about how teachers fed their souls, a teacher who did something that made them feel capable, seen and well-regarded. This is a thank you to teachers because they really need it right now, given everything they're going through.”
Robert shares her own transformative teacher moment and how we can collectively make life better for our educators.
EBONY: Who is the teacher who most influenced you?
Deborah Roberts: Mrs. Dorothy Hardy, my sixth-grade English teacher, was a tough taskmaster. I was this little dark-skinned Black girl growing up in the post-segregated South. It was really interesting when this teacher who had these high standards and excellence said to me, in her very syrupy kind of Southern way, “Deborah, you're a very smart girl, you did well on this report and you're gonna do well in your life,” something to that effect. And it just lit a fire in me. It got me excited about learning and about grammar, poetry and all those things. I had never really explored some of those things before. Mrs. Hardy inspired me to reach higher and higher.
You have several famous people sharing their teacher stories. How did you get them all involved in the book?
I didn’t have a wish list with the exception of Oprah. I know how much Oprah has praised teachers over the years, so I was so glad to get her. Robin Roberts and I were having lunch and I said, “I'm thinking about doing a book to pay tribute to teachers because everybody has a great teacher story,” and she started sharing hers. I asked if she would be in the book and she said absolutely, and that got me started. I started asking colleagues that I worked with: George Stephanopoulos, Michael Strahan and of course, my husband, Al Roker. I hit the media crowd and people from all walks of life. Chef Daniel Boulud launched into a great story about growing up in this little village and his teacher. Rachael Ray, Octavia Spencer, Lucy Liu, Brooke Shields, Christy Turlington—I was off to the races with people that you know and people you’ll discover.
Which story has had the most impact on you?
I have read these stories over and over and so many of them grab me in many different ways. Oprah is just a great storyteller. When she talked about Mrs. Duncan and how she saw Mrs. Duncan in the grocery store and she went off about how strange it is to discover that teachers go to the grocery store, I fell over laughing because everybody can relate to seeing someone that you admire out of context. William Reeve is a news correspondent for ABC News and Good Morning America. I worked with his mom Dana Reed back in the day, we had a talk show together. And I knew his dad, Christopher Reeve, the famous actor who was paralyzed. William lost his mom, not long after he lost his father. I was wondering about his teachers. I wasn't prepared for his story about Mr. Barrett, and how this teacher just sort of stood in for his parents—that is a very emotional story. Lorraine Toussaint tells a heartbreaking but also uplifting story about one teacher who was really, really cruel to her and another who just lifted her up; so she said she went from toxic to tonic. The poetry of that sentence is just breathtaking. Lucy Liu talks about a teacher who showed her kindness. She was this little immigrant Chinese girl whose parents didn't really speak much English and she was struggling in school. And a teacher helped her with her Spanish assignment. The thought that a teacher would go out of the way not to just demand your homework, but to stop and say, “Are you getting this? Let me help you. Let's figure this out.” It was a kindness that stuck with her.
What is your husband Al Roker’s teacher tale?
I met Mrs. Pryor because she came to our wedding. Al often talked about Mrs. Pryor, who was from Georgia. Mrs. Pryor made fun of him and called him “four eyes” because he wore glasses; and he thought it was funny and fine—that she did it in love. She poked fun at the kids in a way that I felt was a little strange. But he embraced that. The fact that she was this Black woman from the South really intrigued him. So he really rose to the occasion. I think he wanted to be a better reader and student just because she gave him a hard time.
What’s the single thread through all these teacher stories that connect them together?
What I came away with is that teachers, particularly those who did something exceptional—whether they realized it or not—impacted lives. Everyone talked about something a teacher did that poured into their soul. Brooke Shields talks about her college professor who challenged her to give her own opinions, assert her own thoughts and make her own decisions.
What can we do to make life better for teachers?
They are under siege right now. We have teachers who are leaving the profession in record numbers. We have school districts that are struggling to hold on to teachers who say they feel disregarded and devalued. And we have legislative bodies demanding more than we would ever have expected teachers to do. I don't pretend to have all the answers to that. But I think we need to let teachers know that we see them, hear them and cherish them. I don't know that they necessarily feel that sense of embrace. I've had a number of teachers say to me, I can't thank you enough; we need this right now. If you have teachers that you remember and value who may still be around and you have an opportunity to thank them, definitely do it. We need to let our voices be heard in ways that can be helpful; whether it's a school board meeting or maybe it's the local city council. If we know of something that's happening in our community that is affecting education and affecting teachers, we have to get involved and make it clear that we want teachers to feel honored. That's the beginning.