JACKSON, Tenn. – Nov. 7, 2002 – In a perfect world, all children are loved, wanted, and encouraged to be the most they can. In a perfect world, “troublemakers” and “problem children” are given the love and help they need to become worthwhile adults. Theresa Luna – a 1979 Union graduate who teaches high school in Jackson – realizes we do not live in a perfect world, but that does not prevent her from doing what she can to make a difference. She believes children are simply asking for love in the only way they know how, and providing that understanding can change a child’s life. As a teacher, Luna believes in her students until they believe in themselves, something that is making all the difference.
Because of her love for children and her dedication to making a difference in their lives, she was recently recognized by USA Today as a member of their 2002 All-USA Teacher Team. For the fifth annual team, USA Today selected eighteen individuals and two instructional teams as representatives of America’s outstanding teachers. The team comes from all across the nation and is comprised of people who best characterize the important qualities of educators.
Luna says her first reaction to the announcement was one of disbelief and “why me?” The thought of so many other qualified teachers who are out there makes the recognition a mixed blessing, and Luna sees it as “one of the most humbling and embarrassing experiences” of her life.
“I know so many teachers just at my school who have dedicated their lives to helping children and who are doing such a wonderful job,” says Luna. “Any one of them earned this honor just as much as I did.”
Luna teaches history, contemporary issues, and coaches the Academic Decathlon in grades 9-12 at Jackson Central-Merry. Even after seventeen years, she still passionately loves what she does and her focus is teaching children, not subjects.
“I walk in the classroom the first day, look at all the children, and wonder how God will use me in their lives,” explains Luna. “The important thing is to learn to know them as individuals and encourage them to be the most they can.”
The children that want to learn present the easiest task for Luna, but the under-motivated and challenging students are the most rewarding. They come from homes with problems, from hard lives, from backgrounds of distrust and failure and being there for them can completely change their lives. To Luna, their misbehavior is a cry for help and letting them know you love them and believe in them works miracles.
As much as Luna loves teaching all her classes, coaching the high school academic decathlon team is her greatest passion because she sees it change so many students’ lives every year. The Academic Decathlon, founded in 1981, is a nationwide program similar to the athletic decathlon that requires participants to prepare for ten academic events. It consists of teams of nine students, three from each letter grade, which train to compete against other schools in all ten categories, encouraging academic versatility.
“The difference this inspiring program makes, especially for struggling students, is simply incredible,” says Luna. “The information is interesting and on a different level than their school work and most students find the competition engaging.”
Many students laugh when Luna approaches them about joining the team, because they don’t consider themselves as academic material but, once on the team, they find themselves really involved and love it.
The results of Luna’s Academic Decathlon teams are particularly outstanding. She has coached teams to six straight state championships with the 2002 team placing 13th in large schools nationwide. It was also the only team with more than one student chosen for a speech showcase.
When these students – whom Luna recruits from everywhere and anywhere including boot camps and alternative school – learn that they can succeed, their whole world changes.
“I know of poor students who, through what they learned from the Academic Decathlon, went on to college and promising careers,” Luna declares. “The results are spectacular.” In many states, the Academic Decathlon program is tax funded and considered an essential part of the school system. Tennessee, however, has not allocated state funds for the program, and few schools can support the teachers and raise the necessary funds.
“Right now we are hoping private sponsors will step forward to help the schools raise money,” says Luna. “We are doing all we can to make people aware of the need.” Jackson Central-Merry finances the program by raising the money through fund drives. Luna is the energetic force behind it all, and she speaks out for the program where ever she can. Her dream is to see every school in the nation participate and give students the tools they need for the adult world.
But until that happens, she is changing lives, one student at a time. Her own life was changed as a student at Union, where her educators taught that every person has worth, a concept she is trying to pass on.
“I came to Union as a backward, shy, and underachieving student,” admits Luna. “I will be forever grateful to my teachers there who believed in me and helped me succeed. Their confidence in my abilities changed my life, and all I want to do is pass that on to my students.”
Because of the influence educators had on her own life, Luna considers teaching one of the most important professions. Through their students, the leaders of tomorrow’s world, teachers have an enormous impact on the future. In working with problem children, they can correct things before they become problems.
“The crucial thing to remember is that love never fails,” believes Luna. “And it is so fun to watch love work.”
By Mariann Martin, Class of 2005
Sara B. Horn,