If you've ever driven south into Kansas on Interstate 35, past rolling prairies and wheat fields, eventually you'll run into the town of Emporia, population 25,000 and home to the National Teachers Hall of Fame.
I took that drive recently, curious about what I would find but also wondering, why Emporia?
"Why not Emporia?" asks Jennifer Baldwin, the administrative assistant of the National Teachers Hall of Fame.
Baldwin, a native of Emporia, says that back in 1989 members of the local school board, chamber of commerce and Emporia State University got together and asked, "Why doesn't anybody honor the nation's best teachers?" They decided they would they would do it themselves, by launching a little program honoring the top five teachers who applied every year. To date, 130 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 on the Emporia State campus. The rest of the cavernous space holds classroom relics of a by-gone era: decades-old typewriters, ditto machines, toys, textbooks and curriculum guides, some dating back to 1630.
"We like to have people walk in and maybe take a step back in time," says
Carol Strickland, the curator.
Strickland is a former high school teacher who was inducted into the National Teachers Hall of Fame in 2003. Today, she and Jennifer Baldwin run the place and love showing of the exhibits.
A "dunce cap" and a wooden paddle catch my eye. "Yeah, the 'board of education,' " says Baldwin.
She rifles through a few more boxes and pulls out a handful of floppy disks. Baldwin says visitors, especially those under 20 have no idea what they are when the see them. For the younger kids, lots of things in the museum are simply unrecognizable, she says, like the typewriters.
"How do you use this?" they ask. "Where's the monitor?" "Where's spell check?"
When Baldwin tells them that the chalkboard was the very first iPad, "they just look at you like you're insane."
Up against another wall are miniature replicas of a one-room school, a "common school" and a Freedmen's Bureau School, created by former slaves and northern missionaries during the Civil War. There's also a replica of a school just for women.
"The first classrooms designed for women taught you how to be a good wife," says Baldwin. "Seriously, just to be a good wife."
The history and memorabilia are fascinating. But Strickland says it's the teachers who are honored here every year that make this museum a living tribute to a profession that often goes unrecognized and unappreciated.
Among its most famous inductees is Jaime Escalante, the Bolivian-born, Los Angeles high school math teacher portrayed in the 1988 movie, Stand and Deliver.
Strickland met Escalante in person in 1999, the year he was inducted.
"You'd think that when there's a movie made about your life you would have this big head," says Strickland. "He was so approachable, very humble."
You could say the same of this year's inductees. Matinga Ragatz from Michigan, Ashli Skura Dreher from New York, Joseph Ruhl from Indiana, Jonathan Gillentine from Hawaii and Bob Williams from Alaska. (link to NPR ed blog profiles here)
Each has taught about 30 years on average. In fact, you can't be nominated unless you've been teaching 20 years or more. But Strickland says it's not just about "time served."
"Every single one of them will tell you it's the impact they have on children and the relationships they have established," she explains.
As we come to the end of the brief tour, Baldwin reminds me that Emporia is actually known for a few other things:
It's the founding city of Veterans Day. It hosts the world's biggest frisbee golf tournament every year and it's known as the Twinkie capitol of the U.S. because so many of the delicious snacks are made there. But some argue that the National Teachers Hall of Fame is what gives Emporia perhaps its most revered title:
Teacher Town USA.