Yesterday was the annual Pancake Breakfast at Citizens Fire Company, an event that I have attended for the last several years. I love this event because the members of our community along with local businesses flock to the station not only to support what we are doing but to share in fellowship and conversation. My sister Jenny said it best after having a conversation with someone she hadn’t talked to in awhile: “This is why I moved back to West Virginia – this feeling of community.” It was while I was eating breakfast with Jenny, that another local member of our community and his wife sat down and joined us at the table. We started a conversation and I was asked: “So what are you going to do with this voice and influence you have acquired (since becoming WV Teacher of the Year)?”
Instantly, I was sent back to about ten days earlier when this question was posed to my cohort of State Teacher of the Year recipients at our Program Induction. Our Induction was held in California and was hosted by Google (no… I’m not kidding… we went to three different Google complexes and were treated like royalty… I constantly had to keep asking myself if this was really my life) and led by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). We spent a tremendous amount of time thinking about our message and what we would use our voice for. It was mentally draining and physically exhausting, yet was one of the most rewarding and inspiring experiences I have ever been a part of. We were challenged to become advocates not only for teachers and education, but for our students and the struggles they have every single day.
It was during this Induction program that I became terrified about what message I would use my voice to deliver. To me I lived a pretty boring life and didn’t have the same stories to share that those in my cohort had. But that all changed when we visited Boynton High School – a continuation high school in the Bay Area of California. It was here my classmates and I were introduced to Ms. Erin Palmer and her incredible students. Ms. Palmer teaches a Careers in Education course and is also a sponsor for the co-curricular organization known as Educators Rising. As a CTE teacher myself, my heart was beaming because I know the importance of a career and technical education and the impact it can have on students. As high school students, these young adults were already showing an interest in becoming a teacher and were getting a jump-start on developing their skills and talents. We observed them working on a lesson plan for an after-school program and it was after this observation that the true work really began.
The students met with us as a group and quickly became a firing squad – asking us hard questions about teaching and education. How do we encourage creativity with our students? How do we ensure that we are reaching all of our students? How do we balance work and family? Using only one-word, what trait must a teacher have? My classmates and I had valuable discussions with these students, but looking back I think we were having invaluable discussions with ourselves. We needed to hear these same words just as much as those students did. They made us dig deep and think about what we are doing in our classrooms with our students and really look within ourselves and show accountability.
Our visit to Boynton Friday morning has forever changed my life. These students had already been through so much in their young lives, yet there they were – undefeated and pushing to shape the generation after them. I have been in touch with Ms. Palmer since our visit there and plan to incorporate her students and their story into some presentations I have coming up. They also helped me develop what I hope will be an inspiring message to educators – past, present and future in our state of West Virginia and beyond.
I want to spend this year really getting a better understanding of our educational systems. I love that I have grown up in Jefferson County and that I call this place home, but this is also the only school system I am knowledgeable about and really it’s only Washington High School and my classroom. I am hoping that throughout this year I can experience a vast array of educational systems and can share the stories of success within those school walls with people that I come across on this journey. I am hoping to become more involved with programs such as Educators Rising and spend more time pushing our profession to be seen as a “professional” profession. Most importantly, I hope that I can inspire those around me and those that I interact with to become servant leaders. Do good for your community and those you surround yourself with. If we can transform our students into servant leaders, we will not only help bridge the equity gap, but we will also foster compassion, a sense of belonging and the desire to make a difference not only in their life, but their schools, community and every cranny of the world. This is my message. This is my voice.
And to Kevin and Jennie Brackens, thank you for striking up a conversation over some pancakes. You will never know the impact that your short, yet powerful Q &A session had on me. Hopefully I can live up to the “badass” title you bestowed upon me yesterday. Like my sister said: community. It helps you to never forget where you came from and helps guide you to where you are going. Stay tuned Jefferson County, West Virginia and beyond – myself and the #NTOY Class of 2018 are comin’ for ya!