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My first-grade teacher, Mr. Cross, wore Bugs Bunny ties, Air Jordans, and a mullet. He was the best teacher I ever had.

It was 1993, and six-year old Melissa was perm-haired and precocious. Mr. Cross gave everyone in the class nicknames, and mine was "Gigs" because I was always laughing and smiling. He encouraged and supported my interests, encouraging me to read and write more than just what the curriculum dictated. He made me believe I was smart and full of potential. The reason I’m writing this today may very well stem from his encouragement back then. At the end of first grade, I called myself an author, having penned six famous titles you’ve never heard of, including "Melissa the Princess," "Jupiter" and "Pandas."

Mr. Cross and I kept in touch through my high school graduation, with him continuing to encourage me. I know I’m not the only student he had who can say he profoundly impacted their lives.

Twenty six years have passed since my first grade days at Mary Morgan Elementary School, but I’m thinking about school as students and their teachers go back to the classroom this month. A lot of focus is placed on the students — the school supplies and back packs and nerves and new clothes and photos on the front stoop. And I’m all about that. But what is talked about less are the teachers going back and the important work they do in molding and shaping our kids.

Mr. Cross was unique, but he wasn’t an anomaly. There are teachers in your student’s classroom and mine encouraging budding authors and artists, musicians and mathematicians to reach for the stars. Unfortunately, despite the value teachers add to the lives of our community’s youth, their profession is valued less than other valuable professions.

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There are two kinds of value I’m talking about here — social/cultural value and monetary value.

What I mean by social/cultural value is that in our culture, we often scrutinize teachers unjustly. "Well they have summers off," is a popular refrain among non-teachers. Sounds like jealousy to me, but that’s beside the point. The point is that having summers off is not a reason to place lesser value on the hard, valuable work teachers do.

In full disclosure, I am married to a teacher, but he did not tell me to write about this topic; in fact, he would probably have encouraged me not to. I’ll preface this then by saying that I am certainly not speaking for him or trying to be the megaphone for all teachers. Rather, as a businessperson, I’ve observed other well-meaning businesspeople shut down when they talk to my teacher husband, as if his job just simply isn’t worthy of discussion at the cocktail party. I’d like to suggest that instead of writing off teachers as having it easy or less-than, we engage with them about the work they do just as much as we would our neighbor’s financial investment firm. Both valuable. Both worth talking about.

Then there’s the monetary value issue. I won’t pretend to be an expert on education funding, and I’d like to avoid getting political on this issue, but it’s important in the upcoming election that we pay attention to what every candidate says about education. Living in this region, we’re lucky to have every candidate come through Iowa multiple times before Election Day. Take the time to go to their town hall meetings and rallies. I did for the first time a few weeks ago, and I was surprised at how different the candidate seemed than what I saw on the debate stage.

This week, I will send my own son back to school. I’ll watch him grow and develop this year as he prepares for the big next step of kindergarten. I hope his teacher encourages him and sees his potential. I hope she’s patient when he insists on shooting spider webs and pretending he’s Spider-Man. And most of all, I hope she knows how grateful I am for the hard, valuable work she does as his teacher.

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Melissa Pepper is president of Total Solutions and founder of Lead(h)er. Voices of the Quad-Cities, a weekly column featuring local writers, appears on Tuesdays.

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