When she was named the 2012 National Teacher of the Year by President Obama, California English teacher Rebecca Mieliwocki said, “I am not the best teacher in America — there isn’t one. All across the nation there are millions of teachers who do the work that I do, and many do it better.”
Those of us who have been recognized by our respective states as Teachers of the Year for 2012 know this fact all too well. We are surrounded by deserving colleagues who inspire us every day and who push us with their own instruction. In fact, those very colleagues were on our minds in April when we were invited to Washington, D.C., for a week of recognition. As we toured parts of the Smithsonian that most people never see, as we sipped tea at the Vice President’s home with Dr. Jill Biden, and as we met with President Obama in the Blue Room of the White House, we kept saying to one another, “every teacher should be able to experience this.”
But the real experience of our week of recognition, the real take-away that we wished for all our colleagues back home, was the way we lifted each other up. There are 54 state Teachers of the Year for 2012, and we all come from very different backgrounds and experiences. And yet, the commonalities we share and the connections we made are astounding. We developed a camaraderie that was completely rooted in our passion for teaching and for our students. The kindness, the support, the true sharing of ideas, thoughts and feelings — all this was the backdrop for our week together. I felt inspired, empowered and rejuvenated in their company. And when I returned to my classroom the following Monday, state tests looming just days away, I was more motivated than ever to work hard for my students.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. It is easy to get along with people when you only see them once every three months. And this is true. My Teacher of the Year family is one I only get to see periodically throughout the year. We don’t have to teach alongside one another each day or deal with the stresses of work that can sometimes strain professional relationships. Something happens to teachers when we work together every day. We become bogged down by the weight of lesson planning, the demands of state testing and the frenzy of having too much to do with not enough funding or resources to do it. And we forget. We forget how very important we are to each other. We forget that we need each other’s support. We forget the best professional development can come from a simple conversation in the copy room.
We need to remember. There is a lot of negativity out there right now. The political firestorms, the never-ending barrage of “reforms,” the lack of funding — now is not an easy time to be an educator. There is great uncertainty on the horizon, and even those of us who are willing to embrace change for our students still face a number of obstacles.
Let’s remember to take the time to celebrate each other and to celebrate our students. Let’s remember that our victories in the classroom, however small, are worth sharing and relishing. When we take the time to share our stories and the stories of our students, we continue to grow as educators. And there is much to be learned from our colleagues. Like Tim Dove from Ohio, who started a middle school where learning transcends the need for grades or set hours of a school day. Like Byron Booker from Tennessee, whose school survived a deadly shooting and has become a model of perseverance and community. Or like Leigh VandenAkker from Utah, who works as a mediator to deescalate violence between gangs at her school.
And then there is Bethany Bernasconi whose New Hampshire school is completely “paperless.” And Chad Miller from Hawaii, who is the “philosopher in residence” at Kailua High School, teaching students and teachers alike how to think and how to ask questions. And Tyronna Hooker from North Carolina, who made my heart ache when she said about the obstacles our students face, “We like to think we, as teachers, help write their story, but they come to us with it.”
I’m a better teacher for having listened to my colleagues’ stories, and I like to think they are better teachers for having listened to mine, as well.
Moments after I met President Obama, my eyes still teary from his hug and his comments about being proud of me, I was asked by a reporter why the public “should support good teachers.” At the time, I struggled to find the words to answer her question. Maybe it was because I was so emotional from my meeting with the President, or maybe it was because the answer to her question seemed so obvious that I couldn’t begin to verbalize it. At any rate, I choked. I muddled through some silly answer that wasn’t really an answer at all. It was not my proudest moment.
But after the interview, when I sat down with the other 2012 State Teachers of the Year, we laughed at our various responses and our inability to be smooth in front of a microphone. And I felt better. I was able to let go, and remember what got me in front of the microphone in the first place — my teaching. So, now, months after that interview and my week in Washington, D.C., I realize that reporter got it all wrong. She should have asked me, instead, why teachers should support one another.
Kimberly Shearer, an English teacher at Boone County High School, was named the 2012 Teacher of the Year on Oct. 18, 2011. During her year-long reign, Shearer is writing a monthly column for Kentucky Teacher that chronicles her experiences as a classroom teacher and as Kentucky Teacher of the Year. The column runs the second Thursday of each month.