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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
May 1, 2000
Vol. 57
No. 8

A Voice for Teachers

    A former National Teacher of the Year describes his year as ambassador for the profession and affirms the prestige of being a teacher.

      Each spring, for a brief and singular moment, public education becomes the primary focus of the nation's political agenda when the President of the United States names the National Teacher of the Year. Two years ago, President Bill Clinton presented me with that title at a White House Rose Garden ceremony. Many dignitaries attended that event, including several of my students. One student privately gave me a card with the following sentiment: "If your plan is for a year, plant rice; if your plan is for a decade, plant trees; but if your plan is for a lifetime, educate children." I would carry that card with me for the entire year to remind me what teaching is truly about.
      During my tenure as the 1998 National Teacher of the Year, my travels took me across the United States and to Japan and Germany. Before that special year of recognition was over, I would visit 30 states; travel 100,000 miles; deliver 150 speeches and presentations; and appear on such programs as Late Night with David Letterman, Robert Schuller's Hour of Power, and C-SPAN's American Perspectives. For a classroom teacher, it was a surrealistic experience. In many forums where I spoke, mine was the lone teacher's voice, and it was important that that perspective be heard.
      My journey to becoming the spokesperson for the teaching profession began when I was honored as my high school's Teacher of the Year. Back then, people referred to me as a "foxhole teacher" because, like many of my colleagues, I was dedicated to my students and committed to my job. Each day, I attempted to make a difference in my students' lives by teaching them the important lessons of world civilization, U.S. history, and government. I also sponsored the school's yearbook, which required countless hours working with the student editors and staff to meet the brutal publication deadlines.
      By January of each year, I found myself exhausted, buried in ungraded papers, and faced with the depressing reality that no matter how hard I worked, I could never do enough. I derived my only job satisfaction in those days from the interaction with my students. Receiving recognition from my peers made me feel invigorated and proud.
      Next, I was invited to enter the countywide selection process for the district's Teacher of the Year. An intimidating packet arrived in the mail, requesting a résumé, three formal letters of recommendation, and several expository essays on a wide variety of education topics ranging from my teaching philosophy to school reform. Initially, I dreaded the idea of sacrificing the time necessary to complete the required documents. But I soon realized that for the first time in years, I was required to think about my beliefs about education and to assess what was truly important to me as a teacher. Such self-reflection during the school year had always seemed impossible, necessarily subordinate to the next lesson plan or the ever-present pile of student papers that cluttered my desk.
      I began my essay on my philosophy of education in this way: An old proverb asserts, "Civilization begins anew with each child." As an educator, I have found this statement to be both a vision of optimism, as well as a dire warning. On one hand, our students are the intellectual heirs to Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Newton; the inheritors of a rich legacy of human progress traversing three millennia. Conversely, if we fail to successfully teach and educate our young people, we are just one generation removed from barbarism. I have always seen my role as a teacher to facilitate student learning in what will be a lifelong quest for knowledge, to help ignite in them the spark of enlightenment, to motivate their interest, and to cultivate their minds. As I wrote, I felt a strong sense of professional renewal. Indeed, I was extremely proud to be a teacher.
      During the year, I progressed through the teacher recognition channels: I was named the Teacher of the Year for Fairfax County, the state of Virginia, and, finally, the nation. After recovering from the initial shock, I began to understand the huge responsibility that accompanied those titles. I was representing a number of teachers and had the unique opportunity to counter some of the charges being made by the vocal, and often ill-informed, critics of public education. Moreover, I realized that to be a truly great teacher, I had an obligation not only to my students but also to the profession.
      As the National Teacher of the Year, I commuted to the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. My luggage became my home. Everywhere I went, I was accorded respect and treated with dignity. I met thousands of teachers and quickly learned that we must become more active and aggressive in defining ourselves as professionals.
      These days, the press often makes teachers scapegoats for every conceivable societal problem. Such criticism exacts a painful toll, so when others ask us what we do, our instinct is to bow our heads and whisper, "I'm just a teacher." Believe me, I now know that most people cannot do what teachers do on a daily basis. Indeed, it takes enormous skill and talent—not to mention a good deal of courage—to walk into a classroom and motivate, engage, and teach young people. On many occasions, I have seen $500-an-hour lawyers humbled and speechless before a group of inquiring 16-year-olds.
      Society must learn to appreciate and respect the teaching profession, and we educators must advance that cause. When reduced to its essence, teaching remains a noble and selfless occupation predicated on an optimistic view of the future.
      Near the end of my tenure as the National Teacher of the Year, people frequently asked what I was planning on doing the following year. Surely I had many new opportunities and lucrative job offers. I was a bit perplexed by the question and decided to answer with a story from the annals of history: When Harry Truman was leaving the presidency in 1953, he was asked if he would regret leaving office. He responded that the greatest title in the United States was that of the common citizen—to be returned to that status at the end of his years in office was, in fact, a promotion.
      So, too, for me. When I returned to my classroom on August 31, 1999, I regained the greatest title ever bestowed on me, that of classroom teacher.

      Teacher Recognition Programs

      Several national programs honor excellence in teaching in the United States. Below is a sampling.

      Each year, the Disney Learning Partnership recognizes and supports outstanding creative practice across the teaching profession. Students, colleagues, relatives, and friends can nominate a K–12 teacher by calling the Partnership or completing an online nomination form. In addition to being honored during a nationally televised awards show, the recognized teachers participate in a summer professional development institute to explore creative pedagogy. The teachers return to their districts to facilitate professional development with other teachers. Contact: phone: (877) ATA-TEACH; Web: www.disney.go.com/DisneyLearning

      The Milken Family Foundation National Educator Award provides public recognition and an unrestricted financial award of $25,000 to elementary and secondary school teachers, principals, and other education professionals who are furthering excellence in education. There is no nomination or application procedure for the award. Instead, the Department of Education in each of the 41 participating states appoints an independent, blue-ribbon committee to evaluate candidates for selection on the basis of criteria established by the Foundation. Contact: Milken Awards, 1250 Fourth St., Santa Monica, CA 90401-1353; phone: (310) 998-2800; fax: (310) 998-2828; Web: www.mff.org

      The National Teacher of the Year Program, sponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers and Scholastic, Inc., focuses public attention on excellence in teaching. The National Teacher of the Year is chosen from among the State Teachers of the Year by a national selection committee representing the major national education organizations. The teacher who is recognized is released from classroom duties for one year to travel as a spokesperson for the teaching profession. Contact: National Teacher of the Year Program, One Massachusetts Ave., NW, Ste. 700, Washington, DC 20001-1431; phone: (202) 408-5505; fax: (202) 789-1792; e-mail: jonq@ccsso.org; Web: www.ccsso.org/ntoy.htm

      Many subject-specific associations also sponsor teacher award programs. Contact each association for information.

      ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

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