“Well… This is surreal. But fantastic.”
Those were the ad-libbed opening words of my speech ten years ago this week when I became my district’s Teacher of the Year.
I recently pulled out VHS tapes of my winning TOTY banquet and speech, and of my fairwell speech, to transfer them to DVD. Both tapes were a kind of time capsule– both technologically and personally. Aside from how I looked ten years ago– more like Mr. Fitz, with more hair and fewer lines on my cartoonish face– what struck me is what I talked about.
I’d like relay some of what I said those two nights back in 2004 and 2005, along with some commentary from the perspective of ten years on.
Here’s my speech from 2004, the year I won, (when I was the 2005 teacher of the year; don’t ask– it’s complicated):
If someone had told me ten years ago, when I was having a school year like no other, that I’d be up here tonight, I probably would have laughed. I am quite certain that my students tomorrow will insure I will stay humble despite this honor. When I received the Teacher of the Year award for my school, one of my students looked at me and said, “You are too mean to be Teacher of the Year!”
After thanking numerous people, I continued:
I’d also like to thank my students– even the ones who drive me crazy. Without them, I wouldn’t be here.
My first year of teaching, I came perilously close to quitting. I contemplated it frequently, because despite my best efforts, it didn’t seem like I was getting anywhere with my students. And then someone said the right words at the right time to me: “If you’re doing your best, then tell yourself you’re doing a good job.”
Those words enabled me to continue, and I sometimes say those very words to my students: “Tell yourself you’re doing a good job.”
Each year I have my students write essays based on Marlo Thomas’s book The Right Words at the Right Time… It’s a book of essays by all different kids of people: Whoopi Goldberg, Rudi Giuliani,Sally Ride, Jay Leno, Mia Hamm… just dozens and dozens of people who wrote essays about a time someone gave them the right words at the right time. It might have been a person who gave the words, or a song, or even a children’s book. Jay Leno wrote about “Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel.” We read some of these essays in class as models, and I asked my students to write their own essays about the right words at the right time.
Some of my students took to it right away, and surprised me be how honestly they wrote about hurts they’d experienced that someone was able to heal them from. Others, I am sad to say, couldn’t think of anything to write. I asked those students, “No one has ever complimented you or given you a piece of advice? No children’s books or song lyrics have ever helped you get through a tough time?” And some of them said “No,” and that No speaks volumes to me.
How do you go through life without someone complimenting you, boosting you up, giving you good advice? For some students, teachers represent the only compliments, the only good advice, they ever get. Even for our students who already have a lot of “right words” coming their way, teachers can add a few choice ones. At its best, teaching is the art of giving students the right words at the right time, and tonight has been the right words at the right time for me.
By next following year when I said goodbye to the experience, words found or spoken at the right time became even more important:
We had Chinese dinner two nights ago and I had a fortune cookie. I’m not superstitious, in fact I’m not even that fond of fortune cookies, but this one was a little uncanny: it said, “You will be honored by your peers.”
After again thanking numerous people, I talked about some of my experiences being Teacher of the Year.
I got to attend the “Read with Stars Gala” for the Volusia Literacy Council–in between hurricanes– at the hotel across the street, and for the first time got to meet other cartoonists, including Bruce Beattie from the News-Journal, Dana Summers, who draws The Middletons, and Chris Browne, who draws Hagar the Horrible and looks just like Hagar the Horrible. I’d never met real cartoonists before and they probably thought I was a real nerd. “Hi! I draw cartoons too!”
I got to attend and speak at a Florida Future Educators Association event. I spoke to a group of middle and high school students who want to be teachers. I asked them, “How many of you want to teach high school?” About half of them raised their hands. “How many of you want to teach elementary school?” Again, about half of them raised their hands. “How many of you want to teach middle school?”
And they looked at me said, “Are you crazy?”
And I said, “Yes.”
But my favorite experiences were speaking at young authors’ conferences at elementary schools around the district, where I could see the potential for greatness even among the youngest of authors. One girl at an Palm Terrace Elementary was a budding O. Henry. She had already nailed the twist ending to the point that I almost fell out of my chair when I read her story. She wrote about dressing up real nice to go to a restaurant, I think for her birthday, and she wrote about the restaurant they went to, about the atmosphere there, and the wonderful service, and how she and her family ate lobster, shrimp, and rolls. She created an idyllic scene that made my mouth water. I wanted to go to this restaurant. And then I turned to the last page of her little book, and she had ended her story with, “And then I threw up.”
That was it. The end.
But it was vividly illustrated.
I discovered that going into a school and entertaining children for a half hour was way easier than actually teaching them. It’s easy to get them to like you when you aren’t having to grade them and discipline them and motivate them day to day. But of course, most of the time, those things are the real work of teaching, and you all know it.
I had the privilege of reading all of your Teacher of the Year packets– all 800 pages of them. It was longer than reading Anna Karenina. I’ve been reading Anna Karenina. Since July. I’m still in the 500’s. Your packets I read in just two weeks. And don’t tell Tolstoy, but your packets were actually more fun to read. Most of you don’t have long Russian names, and no one threw themselves under a train at the end.
Nonetheless, I was exhausted when I finished, and not just because it was a lot of reading. I starting thinking about everything you all do as teachers, all the mentoring, teaching, coaching, workshops, school and community involvement activities. I got tired just thinking about it. All the caring and expertise and knowledge you are pouring into the children of our communities has got to be making a huge difference for Volusia County. I was truly, deeply impressed.
As a group you impressed me by doing the things that all teachers do, but what impressed me even more were all the individual things you did that were totally different from each other. No two of you were alike. We have a teacher who is also a certified bus driver. A teacher who has book recommendations placed onto the outsides of grocery bags for people to read when they take home their milk and eggs. And a teacher who, like Maria Von Trapp in a class room, pulls out her guitar in class to sing math chants.
The list is endless. You all have similar demands put on you, but you all meet them in unique and individual ways. An award like this would be meaningless if you were all the alike, all identical, all– dare I say it?–standardized?
As I teach my 8th grade students to write this year, and, yes, to get them ready for the FCAT Writing on Tuesday, I warn them that when they write, their essays will all sound the same unless they find a way to make them stand out. When they wrote essays about a best friend, I got a lot of this: “My friend is fun. My friend is funny. We do fun stuff together. She makes me laugh. She is fun.” But other essays said things like, “My friend and I go to the Target sock department and try on funny socks– socks with rainbows, hearts, and smiley faces.” And, “My friend made me laugh so hard chocolate thick shake came out my nose.”
It is the unusual and specific and sometimes even the quirky and strange that make you stand out, whether you are a student or a teacher. Some people want to take the human element out of teaching with scripted programs that move in lock step and tell the teacher exactly what to say.
I’m hoping they fail.
Go back to your school and be unique and quirky and different– just like your students. That’s how you got to be teacher of the year in the first place.
This year has certainly not been standardized. It has been unique and quirky and different as a year. Seeing your face six feet high on the side of a bus is not something you get used to easily.
The day after I won last year, one of my colleagues, Danny Tompkins, stopped by and asked me if I was happy about it. And I said, “Danny, I would have to be an idiot not to be happy.”
And so at the risk of sounding like Bobby McFarren: Be happy. You deserve it.
When I gave those two speeches, I had no idea how much my theme of the first speech, The Right Words at the Right Time, would eventually become the actual substance of my second speech. My appeal to teachers to be quirky and different, and my mention of scripted programs couldn’t have been more timely. In the ten years since I finished my year as teacher of the year, I feel like the pressure on teachers to be standardized has never been greater.
The need for us to be unique has stayed just as important as it ever was.
My Teacher of the Year packet was full of specific activities I did for and with my classes: planning a theme for the year, planning out how to unroll reading and writing skills within that theme, finding the best texts for my students to read (and sometimes writing them myself when what I found didn’t fit the bill), finding or creating engaging writing activities that got even reluctant writers writing, inventing a story called Genre Jumpers to teach proofreading and grammar skills…
Most of those activities are things that the powers that be don’t want you doing now. They don’t want you to plan your year with creativity, leaving holes for multiple teachable moments and student input; now they want you to follow a curriculum map with fidelity. They don’t want you to find materials or create materials. They want you to stick to the program or textbook or workbook and to use them with “fidelity” as “common formative and summative assessments.” They don’t want you to engage your students; they want you to make sure that your students are doing the same thing as all the other students in your school or district.
But I know some of us, many of us are, are still unique anyway. Not for awards, but for the students.
I hope the Standardistos and scripted programs fail.
I hope the creative teachers win. Because when they win, their students do, too.
Thank you, and goodnight.