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Be grateful for teachers; they're shaping the future

In an effort to transform Mary E. Rodman Elementary School, the teachers are being matched with mentor teachers at Commodore John Rodgers, a school that has turned around from failing to success. (Michael Ares, Baltimore Sun video)

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. When professional life often can be busier than reasonable, Thanksgiving is a time to relax and reconnect with family and loved ones. It's a time to eat with unabashed enthusiasm, liberated from the guilt that usually accompanies going back for a second helping of macaroni and cheese. And Thanksgiving is a reminder to put aside the constant pings of news alerts, emails and Twitter; reports to review; and speeches to write, and to instead focus on the things for which I am most thankful.

I am deeply grateful for the blessings of family, including my two amazing daughters; friends on whose humor and wisdom I rely, and colleagues at The Education Trust who are dedicated to advancing education equity. I try to express my gratitude to them all regularly, although surely not enough.

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But this Thanksgiving I am also mindful that we should all spend more time thanking and supporting our nation's teachers. Especially now, when our civic culture seems fragile, it is teachers who will prepare the next generation to strengthen our communities as well as our democracy, and challenge the forces of racism, sexism and xenophobia.

Baltimore Teacher Supply Swap offers free school supplies to teachers, child care providers, and others working with children. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun video)

For students who suffer the consequences of trauma, it is teachers who see in each of them not the sum of the obstacles they face, but boundless potential.

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Indeed, teachers saved my life.

My parents were career New York City public school educators. When I was 8, my mother passed away. I then lived with my father who was suffering from undiagnosed Alzheimer's disease. Home was inconsistent and scary. I didn't know from one night to the next what my father would be like — and I didn't know why. As he became sicker, I took on greater responsibility, figuring out how to pay bills, do laundry, get food and keep the household operating. He passed away when I was 12.

My life could have turned out differently: I could be dead or in prison; but I am alive today and became an educator because of phenomenal New York City public school teachers.

Mr. Ostwerweil, my teacher in fourth through sixth grades, made school a place that was safe, engaging and nurturing. We performed productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream and Alice in Wonderland. We went to the ballet and botanical gardens. He showed us a world beyond our neighborhood. I was fortunate to have a series of teachers who gave me a sense of hope and purpose. To them, I am eternally grateful.

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Today, I am also thankful for my daughters' teachers in Montgomery County Public Schools.

My daughter's fifth grade teacher inspired my daughter to see the beauty of Shakespeare's language through a production of Julius Caesar and to consider parallels between the controversies in Ancient Rome and those of the present day in the United States. My elder daughter's social studies teacher asked her to write about what Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois might have thought about the current reality for African-Americans in this country.

Baltimore teachers are launching a city-wide enrollment drive. (Baltimore Sun video)

While many talk about the need for academic rigor and critical thinking in education, I am grateful that my daughters have teachers who walk the walk.

When some look at American education, they see much that is wrong.

People are not wrong, in fact, to lament the gap in performance between American students and their international competitors; achievement gaps between white and affluent students and their low-income, African-American and Latino peers; or that schools in many communities today are more segregated than they were decades ago.

Our schools can and must do better, but there is a lot that is right with public education. As the son of teachers whose life was saved by public school teachers and then became a teacher and principal in a high-needs community, I can attest that teachers are the difference between hope and despair for our kids.

As the parent of public school students who attend schools that are racially and socio-economically diverse, adequately resourced and academically strong, I know what's possible when public education works as it should.

So, thank you, teachers for what you did for me, what you do for my daughters and all you do to safeguard our future.

John B. King Jr. is former U.S. Secretary of Education in the Obama Administration and president and CEO of The Education Trust. His quarterly guest column will run every other Sunday through mid January. His email is John.King@edtrust.org; Twitter: @JohnBKing.

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