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Ms. McLeod, Sec. Duncan calling
[May 15, 2012]

Ms. McLeod, Sec. Duncan calling

DURHAM, May 15, 2012 (The Herald-Sun - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Helen McLeod has been teaching school for a long time -- 39 years, to be exact. But when she found herself on the phone with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan last week, all those years of lecturing and grading papers suddenly became a blur.

"He asked me how long I've been teaching, and I told him I couldn't remember," the Durham School of the Arts teacher recalled. "I said, 'I've been teaching, 38, 39, 40 years -- I don't know.' He laughed at that." The surprise call was one of just four that Duncan made to educators across the county last week in celebration of Teacher Appreciation Week. McLeod was nominated for the honor by a former colleague -- Maya Bugg, who now leads the Citizen Schools program at Neal Middle School.

As nice as it was to speak with the nation's educator-in-chief, McLeod said, "the important thing was the person who nominated me is someone I really, really respect." Over the five years that the teachers worked together at DSA, McLeod developed a great respect for Bugg's philosophy on education, she said.

Bugg's recommendation "was an affirmation that I'm doing a pretty good job," explained McLeod, who now teaches eighth-grade social studies and journalism. "When you reach 39 years, you start to question if you're really being effective. So after this, you think, 'Maybe I'm doing all right. Maybe I still belong here, and maybe I am meeting the needs of the kids.' " McLeod began her teaching career at the elementary school level in Fayetteville, followed by a stint in Greensboro and then at Durham's Neal Middle, where she taught exceptional children. She was one of the founding teachers of DSA -- initially known as Durham Magnet Center for Visual and Performing Arts -- in 1995.

The 39-year teacher initially got into education because of the "creativity of it all," she said. "A good lesson is like a work of art when you come in here and see these light bulbs going off." Although Bugg clearly sees it differently, McLeod maintains that she's no different from the many other educators who spend their weekends crafting lessons plans and evenings chaperoning school dances.

"I really do wish every teacher could get a phone call like that," she said. "Teachers are such hard workers. I don't think they get appreciated enough." Not only can teaching be mentally taxing, but the hours of standing before students can also be physically exhausting, she said. Younger teachers have it even harder, McLeod said, "with some of the demands that are put on them." Education has become too regimented, she explained. "They're taking away some of the reasons people teach -- the joy of teaching, as far as looking at your curriculum and being an individual in the classroom." Although she would have liked to have thought to discuss those concerns with Duncan during the call -- about five minutes long, she estimates -- "I think I was a bit flabbergasted," she said with a laugh.

Just before her phone rang, McLeod's principal told her to expect a call -- but she was shocked to see not a parent's name, but "Department of Education" on the caller ID. After she answered, a Duncan staffer asked her to remain on the line, and then the Cabinet member's booming voice rang through.

"He said, 'Ms. McLeod, we just wanted to wish you a happy Teacher Appreciation Week,' " she recalled. She's a little hazy on exactly what was said, but she does remember that they chatted about the changes she's seen in her students over the years.

According to post on the Department of Education's "Homeroom" blog, McLeod told Duncan "that the profession is the greatest in the world, 'one that keeps you young.' " The secretary told the veteran teacher that his mother has taught school for about 50 years.

"I thought that was nice to hear," she said. 'I said, 'Well, that gives me a goal.' " Thirty-nine years and counting.

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