Teachers are about making opportunities and destinations

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Kimberly Shearer
Kimberly Shearer

In August, Kentucky Teacher of the Year and Boone County High School teacher Kimberly Shearer was invited to speak to the new teachers in her district. The following is the text of her speech:

So, I’ve done a lot of traveling this year. As part of my Teacher of the Year experience, I’ve visited Texas, Washington D.C., Georgia and Alabama, and I’ll be visiting New York this fall.

I have to admit that I’m a bit of a nervous flyer, especially when I’m traveling alone. Recently, my anxieties led me to do some “research” online, which, as we all know, leads to some pretty disturbing hits. I’m an English teacher and a librarian — I know better than to Google or Wiki anything serious. But I succumbed to my curiosities, and it wasn’t pretty.

If you’ve ever tried to self-diagnose an ailment using Web MD, then you know exactly what I’m talking about. During my Internet searches, I came across some interesting information about families in plane crashes. The website claimed that during life-or-death situations, parents sometimes panic and forget to consider the safety of their children. This website encouraged the parent survivors of plane crashes to repeatedly chant, “I have children, I have children,” in order to not leave their children behind.

As a mom, I was pretty horrified by the entire situation, but the more I thought about it, the more I saw parallels between that plane crash scenario and where we are in education.   

We all watch the news, we all read — the firestorm tearing through our nation is no secret to anyone. Policy makers, unions, business leaders, parents and educators are butting heads across the country, all in the name of “reform.” But I believe we — Kentucky — are not panicked. There is smoke and fire all around us, and everyone is pushing to get off the plane, but we’re keeping our cool. And what’s more, we’re not leaving behind the single most important thing to us: our children.

Every decision made in our great state has focused on the children, and whether it is our trailblazing adoption of the Common Core Standards or our current work on teacher and student accountability systems, Kentucky policy makers and educators have refused to allow politics, to allow fear, to overpower our commitment to our children.  

And let’s talk about fear, because you’re a new teacher entering a profession plagued by great uncertainty, and when I say uncertainty, I’m not just talking about all the reforms on the horizon. It was only nine years ago that I sat at this same “new teacher” orientation, signing my name on piles and piles of documents, listening to the many district speakers, and the anxiety I felt was dumbfounding. You are walking into one of the most challenging professions on the planet, and it would be easy to let that panic overtake you. But take a deep breath, put some ice on that “signing” hand this evening, and get excited. You work in a state that values you, values your voice and supports the work you do in the classroom. And as long as your goal is to do what’s right, what’s best for your students, you have nothing to fear. Just keep repeating, “I have children, I have children.”

When I was in Atlanta in July, John Merrow from the PBS show Learning Matters spoke with all the state Teachers of the Year, and something he said really struck me. He said all across the country, people are engaging in political debates over “the achievement gap,” but really, it is not an achievement gap at all. “What we have,” he said, “is an opportunity gap.” Not all the children in our nation are offered the same opportunities, and many children are overlooked and forgotten. Now that’s where we come into play — that’s what it means to be a teacher. You are a giver of opportunity.   

You give each student the opportunity to customize and personalize his own learning. You give each student the opportunity to be engaged and to make connections between your class and the goals they have for the future. You give each student the opportunity to express, to reflect, to choose. You give each student the opportunity to think and question and create. You give each student the opportunity to feel valued, to matter. “I have children, I have children.” You make sure you give every one of your students the opportunity to get off that plane safely and to arrive at their intended destination.

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.

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