In June 2006, I was honored to participate in the Japan Fulbright Memorial Fund teacher program. Through this Japanese government funded opportunity, I explored Japan for three weeks, visiting schools, homes, businesses, beginning to know the people of that country in their own element. I have a clearer vision, now, of myself as a citizen of the world, and I will share with my school and community my experience in Japan. However, I learned another valuable lesson through this experience—about myself as a teacher, and about the possibilities in all of us.
On the ninth day of my stay in Japan, I sat at the desk in my fourth floor hotel room looking out onto the street. It was early, and I had just returned from my morning run. Tokyo’s streets had not yet begun to fill with the rush of traffic and people going to work, and as I sat at the window writing in my journal, I noticed a lone bicyclist riding his way to some downtown destination.
At that same moment, my chair shifted. The coat hangers on the wall rack behind me began to clack together, and the desk moved, causing me to scratch a jagged ink line across the page. The cyclist, still in the street below my window, had dismounted from his bicycle and was standing beside it on the sidewalk, patiently waiting. The whole earthquake lasted maybe five seconds, but, in those five seconds, my heart leapt, my pulse quickened, my breath caught in my throat. When it was over, the man in the street got back on his bike and pedaled away as if nothing unusual had happened. I was also expected to continue normally, to get on the bus to tour a school, to fulfill my day’s agenda as if nothing had happened—and yet the world had changed. Geologically something outside my hotel room had shifted, and I felt as if something had shifted within me, too.
Later, at the end of my visit in Japan, at the closing reception the evening before we all departed to our respective homes in the United States, I looked around the room and saw 200 exceptional educators. All of us had written successful applications to be awarded such an opportunity. All of us were dedicated to our students, our communities, and our worlds—we were the top of our field at that moment. But I also knew, as I looked around the room, that I was seeing 200 ordinary people who had been given the opportunities they needed to become excellent teachers. We are only ever an opportunity away from excellence, and the line between excellent and ordinary is tenuously thin.
I am where I am because of very little I alone have done. I am not special. I am a dedicated professional, a hard worker, and a self-directed learner, but I am no different from any other teacher I know. I am merely a product of the opportunities I have been given. I am very fortunate to have been hired into a school and community that foster learning and effective teaching. My school is a greenhouse for new ideas, for innovative teaching, and that has made me the educator I am. I believe wholeheartedly in the pursuit of everyday excellence—finding meaning in the ordinary—and that real learning is the marriage of encouragement and insight.
My environment allows ordinary teachers to become extraordinary by allowing us to be teachers, learners, and members of a community of other teachers and learners. I have been given the freedom to teach subject matter that is important to me and to my students in ways that are meaningful to me and to my students. I have been given the freedom to pursue meaningful professional development. And I have been fortunate to be a part of a network united in doing what’s best for our kids at our school. That’s not to say our system is without problems, but we have developed the flexibility to adapt when necessary, and the self-reflective ability to recognize when something’s not working. I’m lucky to be part of a school that works. I am successful because my school has helped me to be.
The success of any one of us is directly related to the efforts of every one of us. None of us is in this alone. We must rely on one another to successfully educate the students of West Virginia. We are a unique state, and we face difficulties that others do not. We must work together to create a future. Regardless of what natural resources or industry West Virginia has, our youth are our must valuable resource. Our kids are our future. I have learned more from my students and my colleagues than I could ever learn from any book, and it’s more than any test could measure. I am part of a network of teachers and learners, and we are all critical to the outcome of West Virginia’s educational system. Students should go out into the world learning everything, touching everything, living everything that they can. This is the reward of real education. Real education provides the learner with new ways of making meaning in all the world, and the world—not just the learner—is made richer for having that knowledge.
Like that earthquake I felt in Japan, change can occur in a split second. It’s natural, but it can be frightening. It can be a shift in a person’s construction that can take years to integrate. Or it can set off a wave of new tremors, leading an entire community to be transformed completely. We are tiny earthquakes in the lives of the students who love and trust us. Paradoxically, we are also tiny earthquakes in the lives of the students who mistrust us. Whatever we do has an impact, and that impact can strengthen our structure or it can bring destruction. Good teachers recognize and adapt to shifts in students, in systems, in themselves, and then they help to ease and integrate those shifts. Good principals lead by measuring the activity of school communities, providing students and teachers with meaningful opportunities, leading the way to shared academic vision. Good school systems adapt to the vibrations of their parents, students, and communities. I am an example of the possibility in each West Virginian teacher—a product of a system and a school that works. We must all provide the opportunities for ourselves and for students to make seismic shifts in knowledge, understanding, and learning. If we work together, we can feel the vibrations around us, adapt to them, and take our schools and communities from ordinary to excellent.