By Sarah Reed
It’s odd to think where I was one year ago – in the rotunda at the Capitol Building completely stunned that I had been named Kentucky’s Teacher of the Year.
The past year has been rewarding beyond anything I imagined. I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to work and learn with others completely invested in addressing the changing needs in our 21st century educational landscape.
When I reflect all that I have learned, what it means for students, teachers and our state, my thoughts immediately go to a book that I had as a child, long ago delivered by the mailman, tucked in one of my classroom book bins for a student to discover.
The book is written by Doris Burn and is titled “Andrew Henry’s Meadow.”
Andrew, the main character in the Thatcher family, sees what is possible. He is creative, sees potentials and acts upon them. Normal household objects become forage for his creative expression. To his family, his inventions are changing their world in ways that are hindering their lives. So, Andrew packs up his tools and trudges off into the deep woods until he finds a meadow, where he builds his own house.
Soon, several other children leave their homes for the same reasons. They have passions for their interests, but no voice because everyone is telling them it is wrong to be different. In the meadow, everyone is allowed to have voice. Having a say and being allowed to act upon a passion adds to the combined capacity for what is needed to be satisfied. At the end, all the children are searched out and found by their families, who ultimately realize that for their children to come back, they need to listen to their children’s shared ideas.
Travelling throughout the United States has taught me one thing. There are teachers akin to Andrew who want to share their ideas and want to be heard. No matter who we are, what content we teach, what grade level we work with, what region we are from, there’s one thing I believe. All of us, from the commissioner down to the teacher in the classroom, yearn to have our voices heard and to share our ideas of what education can become.
As the state’s ambassador, I came with a desire to become engaged with learning about education in Kentucky and understanding what other states are doing. My experiences over the past nine months have deepened my passion as I talked with leaders about why teachers need be given opportunities to lead from their classrooms. Going to conferences and listening to concerns about poverty, assessments, college and career readiness, and early childhood education has allowed me to grow and has inspired me to understand that Kentucky teachers have something that is similar to Andrew — their own meadow.
Finding Your Voice
In Phoenix, I learned that there is power in telling a story and that telling a story can have a big impact on those who make and create policy. I worked with fellow teachers not only to craft my story so others could capture a true picture of the school experience of students with difficult backgrounds, but also to remind others of what I’ve always held true to my heart — that teaching is far more than helping students gain proficiency on a state assessment.
I am in awe of what is taking place in Kentucky’s meadow. Teachers have started Twitter chats to promote connectedness and collaboration. In teacher-led professional conferences, they’ve worked in their districts and with the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE), the National Writing Project and the Gates Foundation to craft new curriculum and to design new learning experiences in line with it. By the strength of our collective capacity to give voice to our students and our profession, we have helped shape and give way to a plethora of innovations in leadership, teaching and learning.
Peggy O’Meara has a quote that is widely circulated on Twitter and Facebook: “The way we talk to children becomes their inner voice.” The same holds true for adults.
While in Washington, D.C., I found myself sitting across from U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, having a discussion about the Elementary Secondary Education Act. He asked me what my thoughts were and I shared and marveled at the speed in which my world transformed. One minute I was a 3rd-grade classroom teacher and in the next moment, I was standing next to an influential voice and leader in American politics, engaged in a policy conversation. I found my inner voice and strength to share a story of not only how I build relationships with my students and inspire them to learn large and think big, but also how children and teachers are affected as a result of policy.
Andrew’s passion was in building contraptions. My passion is helping others understand what is truly happening in the classroom. Whether you appreciate Sen. Paul or not, what is important is that he was willing to listen and honor the experience and voice of a classroom teacher. Through his actions, he validated that teachers’ voices matter in informing education policy.
Just like Andrew’s and the children’s voices mattered in their little village, so do teachers’ voices in public education reform. And there are a number of ways in Kentucky that we teachers have a voice, ways that are truly outstanding and unlike opportunities that many of the other 55 State Teachers of the Year are afforded. Some of these are the Network to Transform Teaching, National Board, KDE, Collaborative for Teaching and Learning, Kentucky Education Association, Hope Street, The Bluegrass Center for Teaching Quality, Classroom Teachers Enacting Positive Solutions, Activating Teacher Leadership Institute, and Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teaching and Teachers, among others.
Leaders for Change
As my term comes to an end, I am humbled at how fortunate I’ve been to be included in learning from individuals like Lauren Hill, who shared the story of the Teacher Leadership Framework and KDE’s Division of Program Standards, and allowed me to advocate at the Commissioner’s Teacher Advisory Committee meetings for teacher-driven ideas to improve policies and initiatives currently in place.
I have cherished the forging of relationships as I worked alongside teachers, listening not only to their stories and their passionate dedication, but also to their talent in mastering the common core standards and creating meaningful and engaging learning experiences for students.
One last story I’d like to share occurred the other day when I took my students out to the bus after a day of structure and growth-mindset opportunities, encouragement and hugs, high fives and caring conversations. As I passed by the bus, there was a head sticking outside a window calling in the sweetest voice, “Mrs. Reed….Mrs. Reed…you love me and I love you.” “Yes, I do,” I answered back. He then pressed his hand to the glass window. I pressed back. “Yes, I do,” I mouthed. “Yes, I love you and you love me.”
As I stood there, hand pressed against the bus window, I became conscious of how the pane symbolized the exceptional position I hold as Kentucky’s 2015 Teacher of the Year. Even though the glass pane separated us, it did not close me off from his life, but rather called me to share it.
As the bus drove off, his face in the distance, still looking out back toward me, I hoped my voice would be strong enough to transform others into shaping policy and seeing themselves as leaders for change.
As Heidi Givens shared in one of her Kentucky Teacher guest columns, the first step in change is making the commitment, and with this commitment, one’s experiences help them lead and re-energize them in becoming better educators. I wholeheartedly agree that my leadership experiences have validated the work I have done up to this point. I hope I have inspired others to continue making the commitment either locally or at a higher level to ensure that Kentucky students continue to receive our best.
Again, it has been an honor to serve Kentucky’s students, teachers and educational community. I thank you very much for everyone whom I had an opportunity to learn from. From the bottom of my heart, I say, “thank you!”