Guest Column

Priorities That Can Save a Life


As a school superintendent and earlier as a building principal, I’ve always found it difficult to respond when a teacher asks, "What's my priority?" When a teacher’s time, energy and resources are stretched so thin by local, state and federal demands, I’ve never had a ready answer.

That changed recently when my wife of 28 years learned she had breast cancer. She and I faced many treatment decisions: Mastectomy? Radiation before surgery? Chemotherapy to shrink the tumor? After weeks of agonizing and researching, she reached a decision and is on her way to recovery.

So what does this personal anecdote have to do with answering the teachers' question: What do I believe is a teacher's priority? The answer is actually very apparent.

Practical Skills
Consider all those special skills each teacher helps every student learn and how valuable those skills may come to be in helping others (such as my wife) to make life-saving decisions. I’ve counted many such ways in recent months:

  • Reading: My wife and I read literally hundreds of pages of research regarding cancer and its treatment.

  • Math: We considered treatment costs and insurance decisions and reviewed the survival rates of different procedures and options.

  • Science: Those lessons in chemistry and biology came in handy when we started looking into chemotherapy and other remedies, such as hormone therapy and minerals and vitamins.

  • Health Education: A necessity!

  • Physical Education: Self explanatory.

  • Foreign Language: We discovered much of the best research is written in other languages.

  • Technology Education: How wonderful it is to have physicians who can access the latest studies via computer.

  • Library Skills: We were able to approach a major research task in an organized fashion.

  • Social Sciences and Business Education: Learning how others have dealt with cancers (history), how to be a wise consumer (economics) and how to discern facts from pseudo-medical hogwash.

  • Psychology: Dealing with the emotional component of such serious decisions as my wife's treatment.

  • Driver's Education: A skill needed daily.

  • The Arts: Never underestimate the power of a good piece of art or a handmade woodworking project, the soothing nature of music and the change-of-pace that theater can provide in times of crisis.

  • Coping With Crisis
    This list is not meant to be complete but rather some examples of the important skills teachers impart to their students. Perhaps the most important skill any teacher can help students develop is the ability to deal with a crisis and not simply panic.

    My wife and I today appreciate as never before the teachers who provided us with all these skills and gave us the power to save a life. Consider, too, the teachers who developed the early skills of the surgeons, oncologists and other medical personnel. As school leaders, we must help our teachers appreciate the differences they have made in people’s lives. They really are unsung heroes and heroines.

    Though I have had many opportunities to honor outstanding teachers (through special awards, banquets, commendations, etc.) over the years, nothing seems adequate to express the gratitude my wife and I have felt since our personal crisis.

    Priorities? Just count the ways.

    Raymond Pentkowski is superintendent of the Battenkill Valley Supervisory Union, R.R. 2, Box 249, Arlington, Vt. 05250. E-mail: