Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Events Leading Up...

The events leading up to my selection as West Virginia’s Teacher of the Year, 2007 could be described as uncertain and chaotic at best. At the end of the 2005-2006 school year, I had been selected as my school’s teacher of the year by my colleagues, which meant a lot to me. In the day to day life of a school, one’s colleagues see what happens in spite of appearances, so their selection of me was touching and sincere, a true acknowledgement of my hard work.

I did not know that selection at the school level would be followed by a fairly extensive amount of paperwork for eligibility at the county level. In the weeks that followed my school TOY announcement, I completed a series of essays elaborating on my teaching philosophy, my educational background, and my goals for my students and myself. When I was finished, I think I ended up with about ten pages of response to a series of about five questions, all geared toward the county selection team.

Soon, reports started to come back to me about my application documents. One colleague commented that someone on the selection team had told him that I was “head and shoulders above the rest.” Another colleague reported that my essay about how I became a teacher had moved someone else to tears. I shrugged these reports aside. I was inexperienced (in years if not in classroom know-how) and a fifth year teacher in my county. Besides, I had bigger things to worry about: I was going to Japan.

I had been chosen earlier in the spring as a 2006 Japan Fulbright Memorial Fund awardee. This meant that I would be traveling to Japan in June to attend workshops, visit schools, stay with a family, and explore the country. I would be joining 199 other American teachers for this journey on June 11, and I had a heck of a lot to do as that date approached. In addition to the obvious (packing), I had to have a physical, get shots, fill out a bevy of documents, and design a broad-ranging follow-on plan for classroom implementation of the knowledge I would gain while in Japan.

At the end of the first week of June, as I was frantically scrambling to finalize grades, to buy gifts for my hosts in Japan, to complete my follow-on report, to pack, and to stay semi-sane throughout it all, word came from the superintendent that I had been selected as Morgan County’s teacher of the year. Great news! In the Fall, on opening day of school, I would receive an award, money for my classroom, attendance at a conference or professional development of my choice, and the much coveted Teacher of the Year bench—an annual gift from Tom Seely Furniture, a local fine woodworks manufacturer. The bad news? The state level documents were due June 30, the day after my return from Japan.

Over the next few days, I forgot about sleeping. Instead, I set about revising my essays, scheduled a session with a photographer, collected three letters of reference, signed the appropriate forms and collected the other appropriate signatures, and impossibly popped the application documents—which totaled about 17 pages—into the mail the day before I left for Japan.

I boarded the plane on June 11, and was transformed by my experience. I didn’t think about the state application again until the first week of August, when a representative for the West Virginia Department of Education called to schedule an interview. I was one of eleven finalists. About a week later, I drove to Charleston, the state capital (a little over 200 miles away), and checked into my hotel room. My interview was scheduled for noon the next day, Friday, August 11, 2006. I called a good friend, and we went out for Mexican food. Fun led to more fun, margaritas led to more margaritas, and I returned to my hotel room a little later than I had planned. “Why worry?” I asked myself. “They won’t pick me.”

Too soon, I dragged myself from restless sleep, attempted to sweat it out at the hotel gym, choked down a plain bagel, a banana, and several cups of coffee, and headed to the beautiful capital complex to face the grilling of my life. I arrived too early, and I drank a diet cola in the cafeteria, reading and re-reading the speech I had prepared, and trying to settle my nerves. At ten before noon, headache under control, I forced myself to the elevator and rode to the personnel office. I wondered about all the people who were hoping for me to do well, counting on me to shine; although I would do my best, I knew that I had only the smallest chance of success. Besides, the accolades I’d received were already more than I’d expected—the reward I had already received was more than enough. I knew that the people who were with me every day appreciated me. What else is there, really?

I faced five panelists in what felt, to me, a grueling interview. It was all I could do to not respond to their questions with a blank-faced shrug. I didn’t know—I still don’t know—what we can do in public schools to compete with private schools; I’m not even sure we should compete with them. I don’t know what is the biggest problem we face in public education today; I know my classroom and my school, but I’m not sure there is one big problem that exists across the board. I answered as thoughtfully and as honestly as I could. I felt more and more lost each second. Maybe I did want this…

Then, I shared my prepared statement. I spoke about Japan, of course. While there, I experienced an earthquake, and it became a metaphor for me. I worked out a speech based on this idea—teaching and learning as seismic events in one’s life—and I was sure it was good. I am a strong reader and speaker, but I was nervous. When I finished, the faces of my interviewers were blank. “Thank you,” they said as I shook their hands, “see you at the banquet in September.”

I drove home, consoling myself. I blew it. I took off my blazer and threw my pumps into the backseat, driving in my bare feet, blaring the stereo. I didn’t even know I wanted it until the moment it was over. And I blew it. Nothing could be done now. Still, I would be OK, I told myself; whatever I had—my classroom that shouts thinking and individuality, my colleagues who like and respect me, my students who learn from and with me—was enough for me.

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