Saturday, February 12, 2011

The NEA Foundation Salute to Excellence in Education Gala

The Gala was a magnificent affair which celebrated teaching and learning. My family and friends were all dressed up to the nines, ready to enjoy a lovely evening.

Debbie Calvino the ATE winner from New York, Tom Mead, from South Dakota, Mary Pinkerston, from Delaware and I posed for a special picture in our finery.

The room was awash in golden lights, the double columns brought our eyes upward and tables were arranged around a pool which spouted a fountain of water, in the early part of the evening. The NJEA were gathered at several tables and I had the honor of sitting next to our NJEA President, Barbara Keshisian.

We were entertained with student talent - songs, a violin performance and poetry. Each state ATE winner walked across the stage to bring greetings from their state affiliate.

Clearly, for me, the most exciting moment in the evening came when my students' video was aired. Last October, my students created a video about my teaching. Pearson Education offered a whole week of digital arts training for the kids. During that time, they took over the classroom and told me where to go and how to be. From that, they captured my teaching style in a video which I will treasure throughout my entire life!

When the time came to air my video, I was backstage where I could see the movie on a monitor. I sat next to Barbara Keshisian and felt so very proud - the movie was just perfect!

The students' spoke from the heart and what they said was moving! After the airing, I took the stage with Barbara Keshisian to a round of applause to receive my Horace Mann award. What an exciting personal moment!!

Then, I walked to my table where my family and NJEA friends cheered me on!

Finally, the biggest moment of the night was ready to happen! The name of the NEA Member Benefits Awardee would be announced.

At this point, each one of the finalists was sitting on pins and needles, hoping against hope that her name would be called. Our families were holding their breath. My husband was shifting in his seat, next to me. My state affiliates were dreaming and hoping that my name would be the one called.

As I waited, I could scarcely breath. A chocolate cheese tart had come to my table, but it sat untouched on my place as my stomach was taut and tense. I couldn't even turn around to make eye contact with my family and friends. I was sitting straight as a board.

Which one of us would it be? Nobody knew! Each teacher - Teresa, Terry, Kathy and Karen - was impressive, each in her own way. Each brought passion and excellence to the table.

What about me? It's hard to assess oneself in such a context - I never tried to teach well in order to win an award or be recognized in any kind of special way. I spent 32 years in a classroom without anyone, but my students and their families, noticing what I was doing.

What was I doing? I was seeking connection with these students and with their learning. I was trying to help them see each other in new and open ways, as they broke down the barriers of stereotypes and hidden bias. I wanted to help them yearn to speak Spanish so that increasing fluency would be a life-long joy and pursuit. Nothing would thrill me more than when students came back to tell me the stories of their adventures in Spanish-speaking countries and of their success in college and life!

My own family knew that each one of my "kids" was beautiful to me, but when I first started to gain recognition for what was a natural part of my heart and profession, I was shocked.

The fact that I was even in this magnificent room, sitting amid golden columns, with my family, seemed surreal. How did this even happen? What journey has led me to this place?

I imagined that I had been chosen as a finalist, in the first place, because of my passion for education and for my colleagues. I've learned that I am an advocate for the profession and that I feel this calling in my bones.

The other candidates all came to their position with stories of excellence. It was up to the NEA Foundation panel to pick the best representative of teaching and learning for the whole nation.

Before I went to Washington, I had told myself not to even think about the big award and to focus on my colleagues and the awesome opportunity that I had to go to China as an ATE winner! I loved the week of professional development and I felt immensely grateful to the organizations that sponsored the Gala and the activities leading up to it!

Still, it was impossible to remain unattached to the big win when the envelope with only one name arrived on the stage to a drum roll and was slowly opened. To add excitement and tension, each of the finalists names was flashed on the screen with the name of their state educational association president.

Finally, the moment had arrived for the envelope to be opened and the name was spoken:

Kathy Steinhoff!

Kathy's family and state affiliates sprang to their feet, in glee, and my area (filled with my supporters) briefly seemed to sink down - for just a moment - before rousing our collegiality and steadily applauding for Kathy, with all of our might.

Kathy Steinhoff was clearly moved and she looked stunning as she rose to the stage to take the microphone. Undaunted by the high emotion of the moment, she offered words of thanks to her family, to the ATE winners in the room and congratulations to the four other finalists. She was poised, grateful and clearly accomplished.

She did the NEA Foundation proud and made each one of us happy for her and her success. I am sure she will be a fabulous representative of the profession and that this award will mean so much to her and to her entire community.

What's more, it will mean a great deal for national education, because when we lift up one teacher, we lift them all up - we honor the profession and ourselves.

As soon as I could, I went to congratulate Kathy and her beaming family. Her mom was kind enough to snap this picture!

I offer my warmest congratulations to Kathy Steinhoff, this year's NEA Member Benefits Awardee, and to all of the worthy ATE winners! Each one of us represents our states and all of its hard working educators, who get up every day to help kids find the skills to make their dreams come true.

The NEA Foundation Salute to Excellence in Education Gala was a major success. Thanks to the hard work of many partners, but most especially, Susan Burk and Harriet Sanford, the event was once again, a glittering tribute to educators!

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