National Teachers Hall of Fame Put on Pause: Another COVID-19 Casualty

Carol Strickland, executive director of the National Teachers Hall of Fame, has felt the pain of all the COVID-19 cancellations this year at personal, local, and national levels. It is almost too much to bear.

“We had been living with COVID-19 and working remotely from home,” she explained about having to cancel all the events leading up to the national induction of the Class of 2020’s teachers into the National Teachers Hall of Fame (NTHF).  “It was a down time for me, realizing it wasn’t going to happen. It started hitting me how empty it was, closer to the induction. I wasn’t working with the folks in Emporia to roll out the red carpet.”

The National Teachers Hall of Fame is based in Emporia, Kansas, on the campus of Emporia State University. Like many Halls of Fame— think Canton, Ohio, (football) and Cooperstown, New York (baseball)— it is located in a smaller city which decided to honor teachers as important heroes, to be recognized with their own museum in the middle of Kansas.

Since 1992, the National Teachers Hall of Fame has inducted five selected teachers from dozens of nominations each year. The new inductees are announced in surprise assemblies in their schools across the country. These five honorees are enshrined in the National Teachers Hall of Fame Museum and are celebrated royally by the wonderful folks of Emporia.

To be selected, a teacher must have taught at least twenty years in the Pre-K-12 classroom. Honorees submit an extensive application and create a video about their teaching. The selections committee, which includes representatives from many national organizations, deliberates for several days each winter to choose the new class.

This February, the group met and did their due diligence, selecting the Class of 2020. Plans were made secretly for five different assemblies across the country. Then came COVID-19.

Schools were closed, and large gatherings were banned. Travel was curtailed, and ESU and the NTHF were closed. Everything had to be postponed indefinitely.

Normally, the new inductees are named at their surprise assemblies in late March, then travel in May to Washington, DC, to be recognized at the National Education Association’s assembly and at a Congressional reception.

In June, they come to Emporia for five days of celebration. They hold press conferences, meet with future teachers, participate in the annual rededication of the National Memorial to Fallen Educators, and attend a formal induction banquet and ceremony with hundreds in attendance. The town of Emporia embraces these five amazing teachers with parades, root beer float picnics, and outside concerts with the local band.

But all of this has been put on hold for the Class of 2020.

“We couldn’t shortchange the new inductees,” Strickland said. She explained that there will be no Class of 2021 so this year’s honorees can be recognized starting with surprise announcements this fall and then the regular events next spring. In June 2021, these five will receive their accolades and bronze school bell tower statues. Hopefully.

In the meantime, Strickland has to keep secrets- five of them. “It’s killing me,” she confided. No nominees know if they were selected, and this information won’t be shared until late fall at best. But these are extraordinary times that require extraordinary measures- like keeping secrets for months at a time!

In all, 140 teachers have been inducted into this prestigious group.

Each “class” is enshrined in the museum, normally open to the public Monday through Friday in the ESU Education Building. The current honorees have impressive displays of their accomplishments there.

“I’m looking forward to meeting this new class of five awesome educators,” Strickland said. “I can’t wait for the new ceremonies. We’ll just make it bigger and better to honor these people the way they should be honored.”

Someday, once the pandemic has subsided, I recommend all educators and their families consider a visit to the NTHF in Emporia. It is right off I-35— it even has its own brown Historic Site sign— and is worth the time to stop and enjoy the celebration of the teaching profession. The museum offers displays and memorabilia from past classrooms.

In addition, a hundred yards from the museum is an old one-room schoolhouse perched on a gorgeous hill, complete with a small playground. It is furnished with artifacts from earlier times when students were taught in multi-grade, looped classrooms. Visitors can arrange to go inside and see this gem of education history in America.

Just below the  schoolhouse, down the hill, is the somber and beautiful National Memorial for Fallen Educators: solid granite slabs with the names of hundreds of educators— teachers, principals, bus drivers, custodians, and paraprofessionals— who have died in the line of duty. Pausing there to pay one’s respects to colleagues who have died is a powerful opportunity for meditation and gratitude.

As a 2006 NTHF honoree, I have brought my family, including my grandchildren, to this place to see the effort and excellence which has gone into celebrating our profession of teaching.

For more information on the NTHF, as well as the National Memorial to Fallen Educators and other programs, please visit their website: www.nthf.org.

Pat S. Graff, NBCT, taught for 38 years in the Albuquerque Public Schools before retiring. She was New Mexico’s Teacher of the Year in 1993 and one of four national finalists. In 2006, she was the first New Mexico teacher inducted into the National Teacher Hall of Fame. Currently she works with over 40 teachers doing National Board Certification in northern New Mexico.


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