Reflecting on Being Teacher of the Year

By David Lariviere

Teaching is all about making connections and, for most who go into the field, there is often one moment that stands out when they knew it was their true calling in life.

Amy Andersen, who grew up as the child of two educators, remembers hers well. “When I was a junior in college, I took ASL (American Sign Language) and I started volunteering in a deaf classroom. There was this 6-year-old boy named Michael Panny who was kind of mischievous but I just made an immediate connection with him. Seeing him grow and realizing how that relationship enhanced my life, I fell in love with the idea of teaching because I had experienced it.”

Andersen, the New Jersey Teacher of the Year, was one of 55 Teachers of the Year who convened at Educational Testing Service (ETS) in Princeton at the end of September. This meeting, the 12th year that ETS has hosted the event, is the third of a series of professional learning convenings as a part of the National Teacher of the Year Program. The program, now in its 66th year, is sponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) as well as ETS through the Center for Advocacy & Philanthropy (CAAP). As part of its commitment to the New Jersey Teacher of the Year Program, ETS pays Andersen’s salary for six months.

We want to connect teachers with opportunities to tell compelling stories about students and the work of teachers and the impact of educators. In the classroom you might be more focused on content, but you have a much bigger megaphone now.

~ Emily Zevely

For Ivonne Orozco, the New Mexico Teacher of the Year, it was a mentor who inspired her during a difficult time in her life. After attending the University of New Mexico to study chemistry because of a bond with her high school teacher, Mr. Kennedy, she faced a crossroad.

“I took the chemistry classes but I was not very successful and, during that time, I had come out to my family as gay and I was really struggling with a lot of depression,” related Orozco, who eventually switched her major to Spanish but was still looking for a career direction. “After talking it over with Mr. Kennedy, he said, ’Why don’t you become a teacher? You would probably be a great teacher.’ Hearing those words from him, I enrolled in the college of education.”

Emily Zevely, the Director of Educator Engagement at CCSSO, said the organization has three goals in running this program. They are to help outstanding teachers connect with each other to become better teachers, to increase understanding of education policy and to develop the communication skills that will help them advocate for all students.

When I’m talking to decision makers, generally about an idea about school choice or charter schools, there’s no emotional connection. But when I talk about Deon Wilder and Jose Rodriguez, who are going to suffer because of the system, they are more willing to listen because it’s not just theoretical. Storytelling makes it real because it impacts actual people’s lives.

~ Luke Wilcox

The National Teacher of the Year Program sees storytelling as crucial to a teacher’s advocacy. “We want to connect teachers with opportunities to tell compelling stories about students and the work of teachers and the impact of educators,” Zevely said. “In the classroom you might be more focused on content, but you have a much bigger megaphone now.”

Lenora Green, Executive Director of CAAP, is proud to provide that megaphone for teachers annually. “For more than 70 years, ETS has had a strong commitment to supporting teachers and the teaching profession, and we devote significant resources each year to helping students and teachers succeed. Our longstanding collaboration with CCSSO and the National Teacher of the Year Program is one way in which we demonstrate that commitment and advance our mission,” she stated.

I had no idea how to help my students through that. I had no training in counseling. It had a huge impact on the students and myself. I realized that the relationships I had built leading up to that was the reason why we all made it through that year.

~ Amy Andersen

Luke Wilcox, the Michigan Teacher of the Year, said it’s about putting a human, specifically a child’s face, on an issue. “When I’m talking to decision makers, generally about an idea about school choice or charter schools, there’s no emotional connection. But when I talk about Deon Wilder and Jose Rodriguez, who are going to suffer because of the system, they are more willing to listen because it’s not just theoretical. Storytelling makes it real because it impacts actual people’s lives.”

Andersen, who is in her 23rd year of teaching, literally experienced a life-and-death circumstance when one of her students took her life in 2014. “I had no idea how to help my students through that. I had no training in counseling. It had a huge impact on the students and myself,” she recalled. “I realized that the relationships I had built leading up to that was the reason why we all made it through that year.”

In only her fifth year of teaching, Orozco has spent a lot of time advocating for the recruitment of more racially diverse teachers. “When teachers speak like them, look like them and celebrate the same holidays they do, it goes a long way toward improving academic achievement. A lot of my work is focused on bringing that to light and growing our own teachers, finding the next generation of teachers right in front of us.”

Similarly, Wilcox, in his 18th year as a high school math and statistics teacher, wants to make a difference by supporting issues that directly affect his community. “Where I teach is so diverse and I see certain students who are disadvantaged in the educational system we have,” he said. “The other big idea for me is that we need strong teacher leaders involved in the decision-making process of our schools so we can bridge the gap between teachers and administrators.”

A lot of my work is focused on bringing [the need for racially diverse educators] to light and growing our own teachers, finding the next generation of teachers right in front of us.

~ Ivonne Orozco

Through her advocacy, Andersen has already been able to affect change in New Jersey. In June, she testified before the Education Committee of the State Senate which moved two bills, including the Deaf Student’s Bill of Rights, out of the panel by a unanimous vote.

During their year with the program, the teachers have had the opportunity to meet with government leaders during Washington Week. A visit with Vice President Mike Pence along with more than 80 meetings with Congressional leaders topped the highlights this spring. In addition, Google for Education hosted the program induction in Silicon Valley, there was an adventure to Space Camp and it will be capped off by a trip to the College Football National Championship Game in California in January.

But Wilcox showed one of the reasons for his selection when he said the highlights of the year for him were not meeting famous people or traveling to special places. “I taught a couple of lessons in the Detroit public schools and I worked with future teachers at Grand Valley State. When I work with teachers and students, it makes me so hopeful for the future. Those are my highlights of the year.”