“Why are you here?”
This simple, yet powerfully direct question was posed by 2010 National Teacher of the Year, Sarah Brown Wessling, to state teachers of the year from around the country during the National Teacher of the Year Induction Program earlier this month. To their surprise, the uncertainty of answering this question connected them immediately. They each undoubtedly asked themselves this question countless times, many of whom were still in search of the right answer.
I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t spent nights restless in bed pondering “what if” and “why me.” Teachers have learned that recognition is oftentimes silent – the glimmer of hope in a struggling student’s eyes, the slow smile from the intimidated newcomer, the student on the edge of his seat, leaning in to hear more of the different viewpoint of his seemingly “different” peer.
This is success to a teacher, and we hear it loud and clear.
It’s the reason we joined the teaching field in the first place. But when those quiet moments translate into massively recognized accolades, we tend to default it’s source to the magic of teaching. However, the growth occurring in the classrooms of hard-working teachers throughout our state and nation is not achieved with the wave of a magic ruler.
Attention to Detail
I found relief in knowing that I wasn’t the only teacher with this mindset. Teachers recognized around the country, when asked, described teaching as “magical,” a term my coordinator and two time national award-winning teacher, Kelly Zunkiewicz, is determined to eliminate from the rhetoric of teaching.
At dinner, I watched intently as she pushed state teachers of the year to reflect on Andy Goodman’s storytelling workshop from earlier that week to clearly articulate what makes them a great teacher, specifically in describing what she would see if she walked into their classrooms.
The responses I heard were typical of fantastic teachers:
“My students are engaged.”
“They’re having conversations with each other.”
“I facilitate learning.”
While these responses pointed to the innovation and deliberateness of these teachers, it still called for more specificity. These details would serve as the vehicle for allowing others to step into our classrooms and see what exactly is being done to cause such an impact on our students. Layers of generalizations that protected our vulnerability were jarred open, one by one, allowing us to finally describe, not only what’s so remarkable about what we do as teachers, but also allowing us to demystify what, honestly, is a very difficult and intellectually-challenging skill set.
More than Magic
If you were to step inside the classrooms of these teachers, you’d see something better than magic. You’d see Becca Foxwell of Pennsylvania’s students mirroring her every move as she uses music to help her first graders remember the parts of the plant. You’d see Abdul Wright of Minnesota having a tough conversation with a student, tears dripping on the paper, and a sigh of relief and thankfulness for his commitment to personal connections. You’d see Derek Voiles of Tennessee’s students grappling with a piece of text and the occasional high energy rap to drive the content home.
In my class, you’d see 8- and 9-year-olds, hands in their hair, pacing the room, and working on the floor as they struggle together to solve some of life’s math problems. You can feel a hint of frustration masked by the smiles of pride on their faces as they inch their way closer to discovering an exciting new concept to add to their mathematician resume.
Share the Secret
Our hope, as teacher leaders, is to support the need for equity in education by developing the skillfulness of EVERY child’s teacher. We can do this by sharing these seemingly tiny details with our peers and supporting each other as we all continue on the path towards growth.
I can’t teach magic because I’m not a magician.
But I can share how my class transformed from superficial questioning into student-driven learning. As challenging as the process has been, the growth that I have seen in myself and in my students has far outweighed my initial fears. I know I’m not alone.
As educators, we need to give credit where credit is due – to commitment, not magic.