I assure you that I don’t say that because I want your pity or your comments that you think I am deserving. I say that because it’s a real and genuine emotion I experienced, and as I talked more and more with the other teachers, I realized I was not alone. Each person in the room had an amazing story to tell, all woven together with the stories of lackluster childhoods, life-changing students, and ominous obstacles that they had overcome so courageously. And while we each had these incredible stories of how we ended up in our classrooms, I also noticed something else we all had in common. On average, we could each name a handful of teachers that we felt were just as deserving of this honor as our own selves.
As the 2010 National Teacher of the Year, Sarah Brown Wessling, introduced one of the finalists for National Teacher of the Year at our final banquet, we all stood to applaud and cheer on one of our own. When Sarah went back to the microphone, she said, “Every teacher deserves a standing ovation.” I am compelled to agree with her. I wish that each and every teacher could experience what I’ve enjoyed this year. I wish they could all walk into crowded rooms and be respected immediately…simply because they give of their lives every day for the sake of educating others. I want other people to want to hear their stories and to stand up and clap wildly when they tell them “why” they teach.
This week, I meet many teachers who I will forever aspire to be like. I met Lauren, a high school English teacher who teaches at Georgia’s Academy for the Blind, making her the only teacher who teaches her subject matter to that distinct population in her entire state. She is passionate, speaking out proudly for the children she teaches and demanding that people treat them with dignity and respect. I met Stacey, Mississippi’s Teacher of the Year, who teaches students with special needs who chooses to fully immerse her class in her school, with them participating in Homecoming events and spa nights. She has not only changed the lives of her own students, but she has altered the lives and the beliefs of every other child who attends her school. Because of Stacey, and her teaching approach, all the students understand humanity and what it means to treat others with respect and kindness. I met Alex, a pre-kindergarten teacher from Florida whose face lights up when he talks about the children in his class. He refers to the students’ families as “my families,” and talks about how difficult it is to be away from them. I met teachers from every single state, the Department of Defense, DC, American Samoa, and Saipan, who all go into their classrooms every single day and do what they do because they believe in children. They give this profession their all, and sometimes, they get little in return.
As I’ve been mentored through this journey this year, I have been reminded at every turn that this did not happen by accident, that my position as South Carolina’s Teacher of the Year is a “divine appointment.” I have not been convinced. You know how the second guessing goes…I could always name someone more qualified with better ideas, better speaking abilities, and just better in general. I don’t know that I will ever not think those thoughts. During one of the presentations, we received “Words of Wisdoms” from Teachers of the Year from preceding classes. This advice from Mary Schlieder grabbed me and wouldn’t let me go: “I'd tell them that they ARE worthy of this honor. Teachers tend to be a humble lot. And when they come together with 54 other incredibly talented people, it's common to feel something like "Someone made a mistake. I SURELY don't belong here." Well, yes, you do. Don't dwell on any inadequacies you may have as a teacher. We are confronted with these inadequacies daily in the classroom. Each and every one of us. Instead, be proud and aware of your strengths and use this platform to grow and to in turn become an even better teacher, advocate, and human being. Enjoy the journey!” Sitting in the ballroom in Arizona, surrounded by passion for students and this profession, I realized I am happy to be in this place. It’s not all roses or sunshine, but it has been the most incredible opportunity, and as a member of the State Teacher of the Year Class of 2013, I can say that my life has begun to be forever changed...for the better.