When I addressed the guests at this banquet last year, I was in a considerable amount of shock. In fact, if I had known I would be selected, I probably would have not filled out the application, nor would I have agreed to attend the finalist interview in the first place. The truth is this: when I attended this banquet last year, I had seriously been considering whether I was on the right path. In my heart, I did not really believe I was a good teacher. I did not expect to be selected. I did not know that something would happen to hold me in my classroom. Now, I think it happened for a reason.
It could be that I am a superstitious person. I do look for extraordinary messages in everyday events; I am an English teacher, after all. But I believe there are paths we are meant to follow, and we don’t always get to choose them ourselves.
On September 12, 2006, I drove the hundred miles from my home in Morgan County to my parent’s home in Morgantown. The whole time I was laboring over the silliest thing: not the speech I had written, not whether my students would actually work for my substitute, but what jewelry I would wear to the banquet. It does seem silly, doesn’t it? Let me explain. When I was a teenager, my grandmother gave me a necklace--she called it a lavaliere--that had been given to her by a student in her first year of teaching: 1929. It was cheap, five and dime costume jewelry, but she knew that the child who had given it to her had probably not been able to afford it. It was a testament to the relationships she built in her classroom. This seemed an obvious choice for me to wear to this dinner, but I also saw it as a sign of commitment to a career about which I was having serious doubts.
The second jewelry choice was a gift from a friend who was aware of my conflict. It’s a raw stone set with a simple silver wire wrapping. The stone is called chrysoprase, and it’s a “heart stone,” which signifies the power of the heart over all others. It is representative of finding success in following new paths. Again, facing professional uncertainty, this seemed an obvious choice, but a polar opposite to the first.
It was with this conundrum that I drove the two hours to my parents’ home. I brought both necklaces and intended to ask my folks for help in making the decision. To me, these represented two clear and contrasting paths, neither of which I was sure I wanted. So I arrived, and I took both pieces in the house, and I asked the question. My parents, who had incidentally just returned from Alaska, responded by making the decision easy. They presented me with a gift—a third necklace, the one I am wearing now, and the one I wore to this banquet last year. It is a jade carving, in miniature, of an Inuit symbol, called an inushuk: these are signposts, used to mark dogsled trails. Travelers use these signs to find their paths and to stick to them. "So you don't lose your way," my mom said. And as a result of the events at this banquet last year, I did find my way—in so many ways.
Fate toys with us, I think. Being a teacher is hard, and being an award-winning teacher is even harder. It has been a test of my talents, my constitution, my teaching techniques, and my convictions in the deepest sense of myself. Standing here, last year, there were some things I needed to know that I ended up figuring out mostly on my own, so, for the 2008 West Virginia Teacher of the Year, these are some things I need to tell you:
You will hone skills and talents you never knew you had: for example, you will become an expert at winging a speech, churning out thank you cards, throwing together substitute plans, and getting by on very little sleep. You may gain other skills: you may move audiences to tears, you may find you are very skilled at moving yourself in 1/6th gravity at Space Camp, you may learn to be photogenic for the first time in your life. You will learn to ask for—and accept—help from unexpected sources.
You will face disappointments: when you tell your students you’ll be out for the 20th time this semester, they may look at you with frustration and say: “We Hate This.” Your significant other may wonder who you are. You may see a drop in student test scores for the first time in your career. You may ask for help and not receive it from sources you most expect to give it.
You must rely on all your resources: Dave Perine, Liza Cordiero, Jason Hughes, and Alison Barker will be of immense help to you, as they were to me. I am a resource for you, too. You will meet fifty-five other amazing teachers of the year who will awe you with their talents, caring, and devotion to our profession; you may be stunned to realize that you are one of them. You are one of them.
You will find that most of what you do will be up to you: your best resource will be yourself; you have to trust in your own abilities to find your way. There may be moments when you find yourself stretched so thin that you feel you can’t do anything well, but you will do well—you will shine.
I wish you luck on your journey; I’m ready to go home.
Know this: It will be Hard. You will feel undeserving and discouraged.
It will change you. You will be a better teacher.
It will be whatever you make it.
It will be worth it.
And when you find yourself waffling between frustration and fortitude, between dedication and destruction, remember this:
Your path has found you.
Now it’s up to you to see the signposts.