You have heard it before: “Teaching—the one profession that makes all professions possible.” Teaching is an incredible adventure, and I can assure you it is not for the faint of heart. It’s a demanding but rewarding career that takes you on all sorts of twists and turns. Teaching is like being on the best thrill ride at your favorite amusement park. You never know from one day to the next what your day will be like, but for me that is one of the many reasons that makes it so special. Though a teacher’s day-to-day may be full of twists and turns, even from year to year, there is one constant that is needed for every teacher in this profession: trusted colleagues to learn from and help to navigate the unpredictable journey!
My very first lesson came during my first week in my first teaching position. It was the week before in-service, and I was busy setting up my first grade classroom. The school was quiet, but during lunch one day early that week another first grade teacher, Kristy, came in my room with her lunch and sat down and began to eat. We chatted about our summer, where we were from, and of course talked about our own children. I learned that Kristy had been teaching for several years, and even though we were close in age, I was the brand new teacher on the hall because teaching was a second career for me. As our impromptu lunch ended, Kristy told me something I have never forgotten.
She said, “…teachers have to share and be there for one another or we will never survive the profession.”
She was right, and her actions backed up her words. This was a mere 12 years ago, and although I wasn’t assigned a mentor, she became my unofficial mentor. She shared everything and was with me every step of my journey that first year. Many teachers share that their first year is their hardest year. For me, my first year is still one of my favorites because I had Kristy to guide and shape me. Her words of wisdom are still words that I carry with me today and I work hard to pay it forward.
If you have been in education for any amount of time, you have heard the importance of being a reflective practitioner. After teaching for four years, I decided I wanted to be a more effective educator and pursued National Board Certification in Early Childhood education. My district provided certified mentors to help us navigate the rigorous certification process. Normally mentors were assigned at the beginning of the school year, but for some reason, mentors were not assigned until December. Therefore, I was trying to navigate this daunting task on my own. Finally, I received an email that Debbie would be my mentor, and we began our journey alongside three other teachers. Unfortunately, we were far behind and had barely three months to prepare our portfolios by the deadline.
As I completed sections of my portfolio, I sent them to Debbie for feedback. Debbie did not mince words; instead she just asked questions! Her questions usually frustrated me, but I learned a great lesson from Debbie: how to be a truly reflective practitioner! Her questions caused me to pause and really think about the content I was teaching—did I know the content at a deep level; how was my instructional delivery; were my students engaged and motivated in the learning sequence; what evidence did I have to show their mastery of the content; and most importantly, were my students learning? Her questions helped me understand how my instructional practices were affecting my students, and those questions compelled me to make lasting changes in my instruction.
Not only did I learn lessons from Debbie during my National Board journey, I also learned lessons from my teammates. A PLN, or Professional Learning Network, is a collaborative environment with members that are focused on learning together. Rachel, Susan and Stephanie provided a true example of how a Professional Learning Network is supposed to function! We met weekly and held each other accountable. We shared openly and honestly about what was working in our classroom and what was not. We gave each other honest feedback, and we learned to ask those tough questions of each other as well. We learned together, and today, we still meet to share. Effective teaching does not happen in isolation. I learned valuable lessons that year from both Debbie and my teammates: you have to have a trusted group of colleagues to learn with and learn from.
After certifying that first year as a National Board Certified Teacher in Early Childhood education, I decided to pursue certification as a mentor for National Board. The following year, I moved to another school and shared my status as a mentor. Three teachers signed up to begin the rigorous process of pursuing certification. Going into it, I thought I would guide their work just like Debbie guided mine: by asking good questions. What I didn’t expect was the learning I would do in the process. My first mentee, Emily, was like a lesson in educational analysis—she taught me to look at things more analytically. When I asked her to reflect on her science lesson video, she saw things I didn’t even notice because of her analytical expertise. The lesson I learned from mentoring each candidate I’ve worked with is that I can always learn something new from another educator regardless of their grade level, years of experience or content area.
Fast forward eight years later and I am the Tennessee Teacher of the Year. In the past three months I have met 54 amazing teachers.
But to me, none is more amazing than Kathy, the 2015 Indiana Teacher of the Year and 2015 National Teacher of the Year Finalist.
Kathy has taught me an invaluable lesson: perseverance with a purpose. Kathy is a high school English teacher who is blind. It’s not easy being a teacher in today’s educational landscape, let alone trying to do it without being able to see. As educators, we are expected to do more with less than ever before, and with much higher stakes. But Kathy has reminded me that we are in the classroom for a reason—our students—so we must persevere for their sake!
As Tennessee’s 2015 State Teacher of the Year, I can tell you that I have not achieved this incredible honor on my own. Every teacher I have had the privilege of working with has shaped the educator I have become, and the ones I have yet to meet will shape the educator I will become.