The Kennedy Center/Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Awards

Mo Rocca meets a Broadway musical legend who helps honor classroom legends:

"Oscar Hammerstein was a teacher of mine; I was 11, 12 years old. He sort of stabilized me by teaching me what I wanted to learn about writing songs," said Stephen Sondheim.

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Composer Stephen Sondheim. The Broadway musical legend helps honor classroom legends: teachers whose motivation, toughness and support have changed the lives of their students.

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Yes, the greatest living writer of Broadway musicals was taught by the legendary Oscar Hammerstein, of Rodgers & Hammerstein.

Just before he died, Hammerstein inscribed a photograph to Sondheim: "And he signed it, 'For Stevie, my friend and teacher.'"

Sondheim wrote the lyrics to "West Side Story" when he was just 25, and later on, to "Gypsy" -- and the words and music to shows that have pushed the boundaries of musical theater for decades.

But on this visit, Rocca didn't discuss musicals; they talked teachers.

"Teachers are so underpaid; why else are they teaching? They have to love it," said Sondheim.

Careful the things you say
Children will listen
Careful the things you do
Children will see and learn
Children may not obey, but
Children will listen
Children will look to you for which way to turn
To learn what to be

The man who wrote "Children Will Listen" for "Into The Woods" says teaching is a sacred profession.

"Everybody takes teachers for granted because everybody goes to school," he said. "And I think not enough thought is given to how much teachers do, and how hard they work. A teacher can make you feel more wanted than your parents, if your parents are indifferent kinds of parents."

For the past eight years, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts has given a dozen or so educators the Kennedy Center/Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Award.  Entertainment attorney Freddie Gershon and his wife, Myrna, funded the award in Sondheim's honor. Each inspired teacher receives $10,000.

Far from the lights of Broadway, nestled in Tennessee's Great Smoky Mountains, is Gatlinburg-Pittman High School.

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Honors English teacher Tracey Rains in her classroom in Gatlinburg, Tenn.

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Tracey Rains, a 2015 Sondheim Inspirational Teacher, has been walking these halls for a long time – it's her old alma mater. This honors English teacher has a reputation for being tough.

A quote on her blackboard reads: "The kites fly highest against the wind, not with it."

"That's Winston Churchill," said Rains. "You must struggle or you will never rise. You will stay at exactly the level that you start at."

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Teacher Tracey Rains.

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"And you're okay emphasizing the struggle?" asked Rocca.

"Yes, I am. It is a struggle. And I try to get that through to them."

Fourteen years ago, she got through to Chelsea Hayes.

She recalled bringing her work to her teacher: "'Ms. Rains, I wrote this sentence.  Is this good enough?' And she said, 'Well, it can be better.' And I said, 'Well, I'm not sure how to make it better.' And she said, 'Well. Let's think through this.'"

"I'm trying to get a sense of exactly what kind of tough she is," Rocca said. "Is she sorta Simon Cowell tough?"

"She has a tendency to come off very short if you're complaining," Hayes laughed, "or if you think you cannot do something.  Because her belief is if you think you can't do it, you're not going to do it."

Rains said, "I think that approach that says, 'We need to make everybody feel good,' at the expense of honest accomplishment, actually diminishes students' self-esteem. I've told students, 'When I tell you to do this again and again, you should see that as a compliment, because it means I know you can do this better.'"

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Sondheim's Latin teacher Lucille Pollack.

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When Stephen Sondheim wanted to do better in ninth grade Latin, he approached his own inspirational teacher: "Her name was Lucille Pollack, and after the first class, where she was talking about nouns and adverbs and adjectives, I realized I had no idea what she was talking about.

"So I went to her and said, 'Would you tell me?';' And I spent one of those afternoons that opens up the skies. By the end of that afternoon -- I'm not exaggerating -- I was already three weeks ahead of the class. I mean, she taught me so much."

Chelsea Hayes had tougher challenges. She was raised by her mother, who struggled to make ends meet. At one point her family was fed from a food bank. "All we knew was, we had to keep our house," Hayes said. "We had to make the house payment because we had nowhere else to go."

Hayes said she knew that education was her only way out. She visited Ms. Rains before school started, at lunch, and after school.  

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Chelsea Hayes with her mentor Tracey Rains.

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Then, after Chelsea's mother was left bedridden from a car accident, Tracey Rains and her husband, Carl, filled in.

"I basically have two moms," Chelsea laughed. "And that's just how it's been. And so my mother's very thankful."

Rocca asked, "Did it feel for you and your husband like you had a child now?"

"Oh, definitely," Rains replied. "I don't have a child of my own who isn't Chelsea. But I know that I couldn't love a child more than I do Chelsea."

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Tracey and Carl Rains attending Chelsea's graduation from the University of Kentucky College of Law.

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All these years later, Tracey Rains has continued to mentor Chelsea. Tracey was there when Chelsea graduated as high school valedictorian. She and Carl were also there at her graduation from Duke University -- and from the University of Kentucky College of Law.  

Because of all of that support, Chelsea nominated her favorite teacher for the Sondheim Inspirational Award -- and the $10,000 prize that goes with it.

When Rocca asked what she would do with the money, Rains replied, in part, she would pay for Chelsea's bar exam.

When told this, Sondheim responded: "Oh my God. I mean, don't make me cry on camera! Talk about selflessness. Gee whiz. That's what a good teacher is."

       
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