Sunday, May 8, 2016

Teacher Appreciation

On Tuesday of last week, I received one of the greatest professional--and personal--honors of my life. I traveled to The White House as one of America’s most distinguished educators and participated in honoring Ms. Jahana Hayes as the national teacher of the year. 
This event is celebrated annually during Teacher Appreciation Week, and I could not have been more blessed to attend. I want to express my sincere gratitude to Hope Street Group, to Coffee County Schools, and to my wife and my mother--all of whom played a role in making this day happen for me.
After passing through various levels of security, when I entered The White House I was surprised to see plates of hors d'oeuvres prepared by White House chefs. There were mini salads, freshly-made potato chips served in brown cone-shaped paper cups, beef tenderloin Po’ Boy open-faced sandwiches, chicken satay, spinach pie, and many different kinds of bite-size desserts. To help warm up the crown, the music group Fun played a few cover songs, and then the state teachers of the year took the stage. The ceremony itself only lasted 30 minutes, beginning with a short speech from Ms. Hayes. She is a history teacher at John F. Kennedy High School in Waterbury, Connecticut--an inner-city 9-12 school with nearly 1400 students. Her passion-filled opening remarks set a powerful tone and her enthusiasm for the teaching profession was palpable.
Once Ms. Hayes concluded her opening statements, she proudly, with tears in her eyes, introduced President Obama. I would be an emotional wreck if I were in her shoes, too. How often does one get to introduce the President? His electricity and “it factor” as a public speaker is indisputable, and every single person in the audience felt every syllable he uttered. 
Other than when he spoke out against standardized testing as the primary means of school accountability, one of the loudest applauses he received came after he said: “The teachers here will tell you that what would be most helpful, in addition to a little financial relief, would be people understanding how important the work that you do is, and to appreciate it, and not take it for granted.” It is true that, outside of Teacher Appreciation Week, educators often do feel taken for granted.
Ms. Hayes’ and Mr. Obama’s comments that evening both emphasized the importance of teacher voice. Ms. Hayes said during her opening remarks that “Teaching is about the passion, the commitment, the joy, the stories. As educators, we have a unique opportunity to share our empowering stories with students and communities to elevate this profession...We must lead the charge and change the dialogue surrounding this profession...Everyone has something to contribute, but we can not do it alone. Find your gift. Tell your stories. It truly does take a village.” I look forward to the day when I live in a village that actively supports public education and altruistically makes tough decisions for the greater good of all involved.         
On the way back to Nashville, I had time to reflect on attending this sublime White House event. Continuing the spirit of this ceremony the best way I know how, I am committed to help my fellow educators elevate and express their voices and tell their stories. Teachers matter. No one knows how to improve the educational landscape better than us. We are the experts, and when we speak in unison, educators have a remarkably strong voice. It begins with educators telling their own stories and having honest conversations about what’s working in our profession and what’s not. In my opinion, true teacher appreciation looks like teachers having: fully-funded school systems that are allowed to focus on students instead of tests, the the ability to collectively bargain for our rights, tenure that actually means something, and salaries that reflect that teachers are indeed valued by society. Things don’t have to be this way. Teachers, parents, and community leaders have the power to make change happen.
          If you are
 interested in seeing more pictures from my trip to Washington D.C., please click on this link!
To watch the full 26 minute video of this event at The White House, please click here.

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