Hundreds of educators across Memphis and Shelby County were honored on Sunday (April 14) at the 2nd annual Sunday Celebration of Teachers.
The event was coordinated by Shepherding the Next Generation – Shelby County, a group of local pastors and ministry leaders who advocate for improvements in public education.
More than 75 churches paid tribute to and congratulated teachers of all levels for their hard work. Participating pastors preached on the profession, with each teacher in attendance receiving a gift of appreciation.
Lekeshia Alexander, a teacher and behavioral therapist who works with autistic students at various schools in Memphis, attends New Direction Christian Church in Hickory Hill.
She said the recognition was a pleasant surprise.
"Sometimes, we are seen as just babysitters and we're a lot more than that," said Alexander. "We do it not for the money, but because we truly love the kids, so it was great to hear that someone appreciates us for the sacrifices that we are making everyday."
Pastor Brandon Walker of New Shelby Missionary Baptist Church (Collierville) serves as director of Shepherding the Next Generation-Shelby County. He says the 125-plus member organization wants to help parishioners and the broader community gain a better understanding of the significant role that teachers play in promoting individual and collective success
"We believe that teaching is a special calling, very similar to one that we've all responded to by becoming faith leaders," said Rev. Walker.
"It's critically important to uplift the adults who maintain a responsibility to help prepare (children) for a bright future."
Since the collaborative began last year, the group has been actively involved in building community awareness and support for public education reform, championing efforts to increase teacher effectiveness and to expand pre-kindergarten. Increased participation and support has allowed the faith-based coalition to expand its reach and enhance the Sunday Celebration of Teachers.
Pastor Aaron Letcher of Magnolia First Baptist Church in Memphis recently joined the collaborative and said he felt compelled to participate.
"How could I not? Day in and day out, teachers have been there for our children, often with little recognition and not enough pay," he said.
"It's past due time for adults in this community, particularly those in leadership positions, to recognize the value of effective teaching and to pay respect to educators for their tireless efforts."
Improving academic outcomes in Shelby County is an ongoing challenge. According to ACT readiness benchmarks, only 20 percent of students in Shelby County are considered college ready.
Pastors involved with Shepherding the Next Generation believe that to improve achievement rates across the board, cross-sector collaboration is key and that keeping teacher morale high is essential.
"In spite of all the talks of layoffs and reorganization, we want teachers to know they need to be anxious for nothing and to trust God through the process," said Dr. Stacy Spencer of New Direction Christian Church.
Spencer's church operates Power Center Academy, a charter school recognized as one of the leading middle schools in Tennessee.
"Education is very important to us. My prayer is that we not only have more effective school systems, but that all teachers may find a place where they can be effective and utilize their gifts," he said.
Nedra Redditt, a New Direction member and owner of Pro Real Estate School for adults, was proud that her church was part of Sunday's celebration. Her husband is a 30-year educator with Memphis City Schools and she said the event couldn't have come at a better time.
"Right now teachers are under a lot of fear...fearful of the unknown and other things they can't control (with the schools merger). I'm excited that Pastor Spencer saw a need to encourage and celebrate us and I thought that his message today was very profound."
Shepherding the Next Generation-Shelby County is planning to organize and host additional events throughout the year, including a "Renewing Faith in Public Education" conference on May 7.
"We know that skilled teachers, principals and administrators are a crucial component of improving students' chances for academic and career success, but they cannot bear the brunt of that immense task on their own," Walker said.
"We are committed to doing what we can to ensure that they have the community support and resources needed to effectively fulfill their role."