ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
If you drive south into Kansas on Interstate 35 past rolling prairies and wheat fields, eventually you'll run into the town of Emporia, population 25,000. It's home to the National Teachers Hall of Fame. NPR's Claudio Sanchez took that drive recently and found that some of the nation's best teachers have been enshrined in the one-of-a-kind museum. And why Emporia?
JENNIFER BALDWIN: Why not Emporia?
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: That's Jennifer Baldwin.
BALDWIN: I am the administrative assistant of the National Teacher's Hall of Fame.
SANCHEZ: Baldwin, a gregarious woman and native Emporiam, says back in 1989, members of the local school board, chamber of commerce and Emporia State University asked, why doesn't anybody honor the nation's teachers?
BALDWIN: They decided that they would start a little program to honor the top five educators that applied every year.
SANCHEZ: To date, 130 teachers have been inducted. Their names and faces are engraved on a series of pedestals in the middle of a room that once housed a TV studio. The rest of the cavernous space holds classroom relics of a bygone era - decades-old typewriters, ditto machines, toys, teaching artifacts, textbooks and curriculum guides dating back to 1630.
CAROL STRICKLAND: We like to have people walk in and maybe take a step back in time.
SANCHEZ: Carol Strickland, the curator, is a former high school teacher who was inducted into the Teacher's Hall of Fame in 2003. She and Jennifer Baldwin run the place and love showing off the exhibits.
Now, this one I'm familiar with.
STRICKLAND: The dunce cap?
SANCHEZ: Yeah, the dunce cap - both the dunce cap and the paddle.
BALDWIN: Board of education.
SANCHEZ: This is a serious looking paddle.
BALDWIN: And it's signed by everyone who it was used on.
SANCHEZ: Baldwin says some of the pieces are unrecognizable, especially to visitors under 20, like the kids who'll stare at an old typewriter with puzzled looks and ask...
BALDWIN: Where's the monitor? How do you use this? Where's spell-check? But one of the things I like to show them - you know what these are.
SANCHEZ: Floppy disks.
BALDWIN: Floppy disks. So I mean kids are - they have no idea. And when you tell them that a chalkboard was the very first iPad, they just look at you like you're insane.
SANCHEZ: Then there are the miniature replicas of the first one-room schoolhouse, the first common school, a Freedmen Bureau school created by former slaves and Northern missionaries during the Civil War and schools just for women.
BALDWIN: The first classroom designed for women taught you how to be a good wife - seriously, just to be a good wife.
SANCHEZ: The history and memorabilia are fascinating. But Strickland says it's the teachers who are honored here every year that makes this a living tribute to a profession that often goes unrecognized and unappreciated - among its most famous inductees, Jaime Escalante, the Bolivian-born Los Angeles High School math teacher lionized in the 1988 film "Stand And Deliver."
STRICKLAND: He was here in 1999 for the induction. You know, you think when there's a movie made about your life, you would have this big head and - you know? He was so approachable, very humble.
SANCHEZ: You could say the same of this year's inductees - teachers from Hawaii, New York, Michigan, Indiana and Alaska honored for their skill and longevity in the classroom. You can't be nominated unless you've been teaching 20 years or more. But it's not just about the time served, says Strickland.
STRICKLAND: Every single one of them will tell you it's the impact that they have on children. It's not about the standardized testing. It's not about (laughter) anything like that. It is really about the relationships that they have established.
SANCHEZ: Now, Emporia is actually known for a few other things - founding city of Veterans Day, host of the world's biggest Frisbee golf tournament, Twinkie capital of the U.S. But it's the National Teachers Hall of Fame that's given Emporia perhaps its most revered title, Teacher Town USA. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.
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