Last week I represented the state of Tennessee as the 2012 Teacher of the Year at the 2012 National Teacher of the Year Program Conference in Dallas, Texas. The National Teacher of the Year Program, sponsored by ING and Target, is a project of the Council of Chief State School Officers in partnership with the University of Phoenix and People to People Ambassador Programs. We were treated to a week of discussions of educational initiatives and reform, Common Core mapping sessions, technology training, reflection, and celebration. Yet, it was a call to action on Saturday morning which strengthened my resolve for teaching and learning.

Dr. Rick Melmer, Dean of the School of Education at the University of South Dakota opened our Saturday morning session with commendation and a call to action. A former elementary teacher, principal, superintendent, and secretary of education, Dr. Melmer struck a chord which resonated with me. He shared an educational report card which bolstered three A’s, attitude, ambition, and amnesia, and which momentarily paralyzed me on my educational seat.

Teachers should maintain a positive attitude, a quiver of allies instead of enemies. We are working toward a common goal, a mission sustained by cooperation and collaboration. One can make a difference; two can have an impact. The second A is ambition. Thomas Jefferson believed in ambition. He said, “I’m a firm believer in luck. The harder I work, the luckier I get.” We come early and stay late. Our persistent determination provides equal educational opportunities for all students. The third A, amnesia, was slightly harder to swallow with my personal dose of self-pride. Dr. Melmer suggested that sometimes we are guilty of holding conditional or negative opinions of students, colleagues, administrators, or programs. He challenged us to purge the past by practicing a healthy diet of amnesia.

And then I thought of Marlon.

Marlon was a kid from the Philippines, the product of a broken life and home. We met briefly when Marlon entered the U.S. as an eighth grader. Marlon was wide-eyed, eager to assimilate into the teenage culture. Unfortunately, Marlon wasted no time experimenting with illegal substances and skipping school. By the time I re-united with Marlon during his junior year of high school, I was saddened to see the shattered mess of a life. Dismissed from his home, Marlon sought shelter on the corner street or in his late 70s model Ford LTD.

I reached out to Marlon on several occasions. I offered Marlon a bedroom at my house with my wife and me. I offered tutoring after school and on weekends. I offered meals and financial support, even offering Marlon a mat and pillow to sleep in class when it was apparent he had spent the night on the run. Yet, my offers failed to connect with him, overshadowed by my all-to-telling facial accusations and condemnation. What Marlon needed was an unconditional positive attitude, and a little amnesia from his teacher.

I lost Marlon the next year. He dropped out of school, spent some time in jail for armed robbery, and continued to endlessly search for that peace which had eluded him by such an early age. As we prepare a generation of students to be college and career ready, we recognize we are more alike than different. To make a positive impact in a student’s life beyond the classroom may require an unconditional positive attitude, ambition, and a little amnesia from this teacher. Dr. Melmer uncovered those truths for me last week through the life of a former student.