Tuesday, July 05, 2005

A Great Teacher Died

This past Saturday, July 2, 2005, Myrna McCulloch died. Chances are you've never heard of her. And that's a shame. Teachers are rarely mentioned except in the context of our failing public schools or unless they do something horrible. Teachers who daily battle against failure, illiteracy, and the bureaucracies of the educational establishment are among the unsung heroes of society and our civilization. Myrna was one of them.

On occasion we do hear about the exceptional teachers. On a local level, a great teacher may get written about in a local newspaper. Sometimes great teachers get movies made about them; Marva Collins and Jaime Escalante come to mind. There should be a movie about Myrna.

Myrna was a classroom teacher many years ago, but went a step further and in 1979 began the Riggs Institute. She named it after her mentor, Oma Riggs, who studied under Romalda Spalding who worked with Dr. Samuel T. Orton and Anna Gillingham. Through the Riggs Institute, thousands of teachers (including me) have been trained in the Riggs method using her instructional manual, The Writing and Spelling Road to Reading and Thinking. By creating the Riggs Institute and training teachers in this phonetic language arts method, she spent her life fighting illiteracy, and demonstrating that the educational establishment is wrong in pandering to failure by promoting ineffective teaching methods.

She showed anyone who would listen, that there is a more effective way to teach children, that we don't have to accept the failure of our public schools, that "learning disabilities" have been oversold and overstated, that the real problems are "teaching disabilities", that is, teachers are not trained properly. She showed that elementary school students who have been properly taught can read and comprehend far beyond what we expect from children today, even if they come from a "disadvantaged background", live in poverty, or are a member of a minority group. They can also spell accurately and become excellent writers. They can succeed. The crime is that so few in the teaching profession have bothered to listen.

I never met Myrna in person. We held lengthy email correspondences, and spoke on the phone a few times. Her focus on quality education and knowledge of her subject was inspiring. She had the answers to all of the questions, and expected the the people who trained teachers in her method to also have all of the answers and maintain her high standards. Yes, she set very high standards for teachers, students, and herself. But we can only get the best from ourselves and our students if that's what we expect.

Anyone who is concerned with education should be thankful that Myrna was here, and was on our side. There will never be a movie about her, but I will do my best to honor her memory by continuing to teach her method, which she detailed in her manual, The Writing and Spelling Road to Reading and Thinking.

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