April 29, 2020
Dear Evan, Lauren and Zach:
I woke up early this morning, way before my alarm went off. I noticed the date on my phone and opened my email out of habit. Sitting at the top of the queue, was a note from my former superintendent who wrote, “one of the proudest times in my life was having the National Teacher of the Year in our Johnston Community School District. Happy 10th Anniversary!” Children, I’m sure this day, 10 years ago is mostly a memory for you only through photos. Even then, we rarely talk about it. But today, I want to.
Even before my morning coffee, I re-read the speech I gave in the Rose Garden that day and after cringing at some typos (that’s what happens when you’re nursing a four-month old a 3:00 am, getting ready to be picked up for a CNN interview at 5:00 am and revising remarks to deliver to the nation for later that day) I found a tether I’ve needed since the world turned upside-down six weeks ago. The day before meeting the President I remember going to a lunch with the other finalists and some very important people in education. When I left (along with breaking out in hives from the purple potatoes) I could hardly breathe. I was certain they’d chosen the wrong person. I was certain I would let everyone down and wondered if I should tell the people in charge: “Hey, this isn’t right. Can you give the crystal apple to someone else?”
I kept walking. I kept breathing. I did the thing teachers do every day: walk into the uncertainty. Here’s what I want you to know: your teachers, all teachers wonder if they’ll be enough, just like I did that day. Especially right now. We wonder if you’re okay, if you’re still learning, if you’re safe. We wonder if you’ll regress or if this experience will change you in ways we can’t untangle next year. I also want you to know teachers are some of the strongest people I know. I’m still trying to be a better one. They can turn a tear into a triumph and fear into force. They have this incredible ability to see into your future. That’s why they don’t let up and won’t give up, because beyond the labels and scores and sorting, they see you. They see who you can be in one year and five years and ten years. They hold onto the best of you and want to protect and nurture it. That’s why this is such a tough time, because we work so hard to carry the best of you until the very last day of the year when we turn it over to someone else. It feels like we released you far too early and into the unknown.
Just like I said to you, my fellow teachers and 100 news cameras on April 29, 2010, I say to you again today: “Our dream for our students is the same dream we have for our own children. To be recognized for their strengths, to learn from their weaknesses to be seen as a person of infinite potential.” That’s why it’s so hard right now. Because you are our infinite potential. You are our hope and when we let go of this work in the ways we’ve known it, we feel like we’re letting go of our best selves. But we rail against it. With Zoom classes and notes home. With hours upon hours of screencasting and lesson planning. With careful feedback and constant check-ins. We won’t let your best selves disappear.
My gift on April 29, 2010 wasn’t the honor or the title of National Teacher of the Year, it was a lesson: when the universe puts something scary and beautiful in your hands, don’t send it back, no matter how frightening it might seem. Instead of backing away because you’re scared, walk towards it because you know fear is an engine of strength you’re harvesting.
Ten years ago I said, “it will be the stories of our students that sustain and teach us.” It’s as true then as it is today. We need to tell stories that matter. And the more we tell them, the more we remember we’ve always been walking through some unknown to get to the other side. The more we tell them, the more we realize hope is as close as your story. Thank you for letting us tell them.
On April 29, 2010, I was named the National Teacher of the Year by President Obama. I am grateful to CCSSO for the program they’ve created and sustained for over 60 years to elevate and celebrate teachers and the teaching profession.