Since being named the 2012 Connecticut Teacher of the Year, I have been both humbled and empowered by this incredible honor. It has allowed me not only to further reflect on my teaching and educational beliefs, but to better realize the need for teachers to be active, visible, and powerful advocates and educational leaders in their own right – in their buildings, their districts, the state, and on a national level.
When I was growing up, on the top of my mother’s dresser, was a copy of a quote that has always resonated with me. It read, “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but suffers the loss of his own soul?”
In many ways, I feel this quote appropriately reflects some of the challenges of education today. The heart of education, the soul of education, the very purpose of what drives us as teachers each and every day, reside in the core values of our mission. Social justice, global awareness, and lifelong learning – these are the ideals that are the essence of education.
So, what does it profit our educational system and our society if we succumb to the pressures wrought by the politics, money, and special interests that have dominated the educational discourse – but suffer the loss of our educational soul?
I have traveled hundreds of miles both here in the state and across our nation, talking to teachers, future teachers, and policymakers. I’ve given speeches about my educational philosophy and the significance of elevating the teaching profession. I’ve been invited to sit on boards and committees to provide a teacher perspective on pressing educational issues.
I have met with Commissioner Pryor, Governor Malloy, Arne Duncan, President Obama, scholars, and legislators, and even had one especially interesting meeting with Bill Gates. I’ve done radio interviews, television spots, and newspaper and magazine articles have been written. Five-star hotels, wonderful meals, gifts, attention, and VIP treatment have come my way. At the start of our careers, I never would have guessed that my wife and I would spend time in the East Room of the White House with the President of the United States.
But despite all of these incredible experiences, I keep coming back to my students, my classroom, my teaching – the core of what I do and the essence of what I believe. Of all the lavish praise and honors, one of the best moments of the year came in the form of a letter I received from a student named Carolyn. It reads, in part, “You taught our class so much, but I feel that the lessons that were not outlined in the curriculum are what have really guided me though high school. You taught us to consider the whole world, how we can affect it, and how it can affect us. You taught us to see things differently and to look at everything in perspective. You taught us to seize the day and get out and experience the world. I value every lesson you taught me. Thank you for always believing in me.”
How do we truly measure and quantify the impact teachers have had on Carolyn’s educational experience? Can we adequately do that without losing our collective educational soul?
This picture is of the Multi-Axis Trainer at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. I had the opportunity and the pleasure of spending a week there this summer with my fellow 2012 State Teachers of the Year. Many of us, including myself, were hesitant to go on the Multi-Axis Trainer – and you can see why. It is intended to simulate spiraling out of control and a sense of disorientation during re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. Our hosts pointed out, however, that people will not feel dizzy or nauseous since their center of gravity remains at the center of the entire contraption, at the center of one’s body. I feel that, in many ways, this is a fitting metaphor for the year I’ve had. Policy, politics, testing, data, evaluation, standards, and so many other things are swirling around rapidly, going by in a blur. But always, without fail, what remains at the heart of teaching and learning – our metaphorical center of gravity and our soul – are the students and our collective mission, rooted in the ideals of education.