Sunday, January 31, 2010

The NTOY Conference in Dallas, January 26-January 31

     What does every single Teacher of the Year from every state in the union and territory have in common? Each teacher I met in Dallas, Texas at the 2010 National State Teacher of the Year Conference has a belief in children, a sense of gratitude for being in the classroom and a contagious enthusiasm about teaching, learning and leading.
     The motto of this year's conference was "Teachers, teaching; Learners, learning and Leaders, Leading." Over the last few days, we all have been thinking about how we can improve our performance with humility and confidence by thinking about the connections between being teachers, learners and leaders at the same time.
    All of us at this week-long event have been supported by our districts and states and have been lifted up to be a voice for our colleagues. This is sometimes daunting. Though we are all proud of our classroom performance, we recognize that we learn something everyday from our colleagues.
     If I think about my school, Northern Highlands Regional High School in Allendale, New Jersey, I can think of walking down the hall and hearing my colleagues teaching their hearts out. When I hear them,  I just wish that I could learn in those classrooms too, to be a part of their jokes and stories. I walk by classrooms to hear laughter, deep conversation and active debate. It's the real deal of learning.
     At the National Teacher of the Year Conference, I am meeting people who look unassuming, but when they open their mouths, they tell you about wonderful initiatives, dreams they plan on making a reality, and rich lives where their students are the number one priority, always. There is not a doubt in any of their minds that all children can learn.
     Just one of the stories that struck me today was that of Kimberly Oliver Burnim, the 2006 National Teacher of the Year. When she completed her responsibilities as the country's TOY, she returned to the classroom to find a very active and difficult to deal with student running circles around her room. He was on his way to being classified as low functioning and nobody could figure out how to make him engage in learning.
      Here Kim was confronting a real-life challenge - a boy who everyone expected to fail, but she wouldn't have it. Here, she said, being Teacher of the Year, didn't matter to this child and all of her speaking success and accolades were of little value. But what Kim had was a rock solid belief in her student's possibilities and a commitment not to give up, ever.
      And it paid off. Her student grew and turned out to be one of the brightest children in her room who needed a teacher who saw his unique needs. Because Kim cared and never gave up, another child found their voice.
      This was the kind of inspiration I received every day at this conference. I come home to New Jersey inspired by these dedicated teachers who humbly and happily meet each day. Their optimism and intelligence give me strength. They represent the best of the teaching profession and serve as a reminder of the ways that my fellow teachers make a difference in the lives of children every minute of the day.
     Tony Mullen, the National Teacher of 2009, said, in his speech tonight, that "Teachers help students script" their lives to create happy endings and possibilities. Through perseverance, passion and persistence, teachers engage and learn from their students every day.
    I feel lucky to be one of America's teachers. What a chance we have to change the world.

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