Almost two years ago, I quietly received an email that I was nominated for the 2022 Kentucky Teacher of the Year. I remember thinking that I would never be picked because I didn’t feel like I had done anything worth celebrating. On the best days in my classroom, I simply closed my door and taught, and on the worst days I constantly put out small fires.
I remember thinking that I would never be picked because people like me – who have accents, who are rural, who are Appalachian, who are LGBTQ – have often, in my experience, been swept under the rug.
So, I basically applied as an act of defiance. I had students do my recommendations and took the opportunity to brag on them. I didn’t try to be fancy; I spoke from the heart about what my students accomplished and some of the ways I helped them accomplish their goals: small goals, human goals, the goals of real people in my classroom who deserved an advocate.
When I received multiple emails a few months later informing me that I was a 2022 Valvoline Teacher Achievement Award Winner, which is the group from which the Teacher of the Year is chosen, I assumed it was spam and deleted it twice. The Kentucky Department of Education literally had to call me to see if I still planned on continuing! I did continue.
And everything about my life changed for the better.
As I look back over the past year, I can’t believe what I have accomplished. One year ago, I didn’t see myself as someone worthy of this role. I didn’t know what I would even do.
What I didn’t know is that this role is a powerful amplification of what I’ve always done, and what I’ve always done is lift my students. This is what all good teachers do. We ask what students need and we work within our roles and power to get it to them.
Because I applied, I was able to win. Because I won, I used my time and space to reflect on every need of every student who walked through my classroom door: their need to speak, to be heard, to read books, to see themselves in their curricula and libraries, to feel safe, to have access to high-quality instructional materials and to know they matter.
Through the opportunities I’ve had, I’ve helped create scholarships, received more than $10,000 in funding for conferences for marginalized students, and have spoken to dozens of regional, state, national and international media outlets. I’ve helped organize thousands of dollars in donations of books that reflect our students to be made to libraries in Kentucky. I’ve written dozens of articles and even published my first book, “Gay Poems for Red States,” which considers the worth of our most vulnerable children. I spoke on ABC, NBC, C-SPAN and NPR. I spoke in Boston, Minneapolis, Paris, Washington D.C. and New York City.
I argued for big change, meeting with representatives in Washington, D.C., and testifying before Congress about the need to protect our students. I also argued for small change, asking President Biden to reach out to a single trans student in Kentucky who needed some reassurance that they mattered. He reached out to them with a heartfelt, personal letter.
They mattered. Every single student matters, regardless of the color of their skin, regardless of the gender of their first crush, regardless of how they identify themselves in a complex world, regardless of their religious beliefs or lack thereof, regardless of the voting patterns, speaking patterns or bank accounts of their parents. They matter in incomprehensibly important ways – and this is the first unbreakable rule of teaching: They matter.
And if any teacher out there feels that they haven’t done enough to apply, then I’m going to tell them that this is the first sign they need to apply.
When we are teaching the right way, we often disappear. The goal is to help others shine, to help others feel important, to help others be safe, confident and seen.
When we show off what we’ve done, we’re really showing off what our students have done. And if you’re like me, you’ve never met a good teacher who didn’t use every opportunity to brag on what their students are doing.
So if you’ve been nominated, apply.
Remember that this is your chance not only to tell the state, nation and world about the potential, merit and worth of your students and community, it is also an opportunity to be a voice for them, to carry their ideas and to vocalize their needs before people who have the power to change things.
I cannot adequately describe in words the joy and honor I have felt being the 2022 Kentucky Teacher of the Year. I can only say that I am proud to have carried this title because I believe in the students and teachers of Kentucky. We are, without question, the stitch that holds together this entire state. I know our hearts. I know how much we care. I know how hard we work. I know how little we feel seen. I hope you all know that I have tried to make that work better, those hearts fuller, and that care witnessed and celebrated.
The best way you can share in this work is to nominate a colleague, because, let’s face it, this year we all deserve to be the teacher of the year.