StoryCorps Project Honors America’s Teachers

Secretary Duncan Speaking

Secretary Duncan speaks at the launch of the National Teachers Initiative (Photo Courtesy of StoryCorps)

If you could tell your favorite teacher what influence he or she has had on your life, what would you say?

And if you are, or ever have been, a teacher, what would you say to a student who made those long hours at school worth it? How would you thank that mentor who made you a better educator?

These are the kinds of conversations that America will be hearing over the next year thanks to the National Teachers Initiative, a new project of StoryCorps, the oral history project. The initiative aims to record more than 600 conversations with Americans talking to and about teachers, some of which NPR will broadcast and all of which will be archived in the Library of Congress.

On Sept. 19, Secretary Duncan helped launch the National Teachers Initiative at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, adjacent to the White House. An audience that included teachers and students heard previews of several powerful interviews that StoryCorps has recorded.

In one, Lee Buono thanks his science teacher from Medford (N.J.) Memorial Middle School, Al Siedlecki, for encouraging him to become a neurosurgeon. “Mr. Sie,” as he’s known to students, first noticed Buono’s surgical talents as he dissected a frog. Years later, Buono called his teacher and thanked him after helping a patient regain his ability to speak.

“It made me feel really important that I had that influence on you,” Siedlecki recalls in their conversation for StoryCorps. “Lately I almost am afraid to say that I’m a teacher to some people. But I’m not, because you called me. I’m a teacher. I’m going to help as many people as I can to find their passion, too.” (Listen to their conversation here.)


Photo Courtesy of StoryCorps

At the White House, Siedlecki, who has taught science for more than three decades, expressed his hope that StoryCorps’ project would help teachers regain the respect they deserve. “Teachers need a boost in this country right now,” he said.

Secretary Duncan agreed. He called the National Teachers Initiative “the right project at the right time” and praised StoryCorps for capturing “the extraordinary power” of listening.

“In places like Washington and around the country, everybody wants to talk,” Arne said. “Everybody wants to tell you what their ideas are and, how convinced they are that their vision is the only way, and I think none of us spend enough time actually listening and engaging with folks.”

While back home in Chicago earlier in September following his back-to-school bus tour, Arne recorded a conversation with his mother, Sue Duncan, who founded an afterschool tutoring program 50 years ago for low-income children on Chicago’s South Side. StoryCorps founder Dave Isay played a short clip from the conversation.

“One of my biggest battles I feel I’m fighting every day is lots of folks sort of believe that poverty is destiny,” Arne told his mom. “But you always had this incredible hope. I guess that’s why I’m always trying to challenge people and challenge schools to do better, because the outcomes for so many of the kids that came to your program—where they ended up in life—was just so radically, radically different from where they started. And it just showed me what was possible.”

Mrs. Duncan summed up her half-century supporting children’s educations this way: “I tried to be consistent and kind and trustworthy and just have an infinite hope for the children. Just do the best you can, every moment. We only have one moment at a time.”

To learn more about the National Teachers Initiative and listen to stories about teachers and teaching, go to StoryCorps’ website.

Massie Ritsch is Deputy Assistant Secretary for External Affairs and Outreach