A Wider Audience, More Money Draws Teachers of the Year From Classrooms

December 02, 1992 6 min read

Joanna Richardson

Last summer, the syndicated columnist Colman McCarthy wrote an editorial imploring Rae Ellen McKee, the 1991 national Teacher of the Year, to shun corporate job offers--and a spot on the lecture circuit--and remain in the classroom.

“Please, stay put,’' wrote Mr. McCarthy. “You’re more needed by your children at Slanesville Elementary than in front of a microphone or behind a corporate desk.’'

Soon after the column was published, says Ms. McKee, she was bombarded with hundreds of letters of advice.

Many of those with careers outside education agreed with the columnist and urged the West Virginia native to continue teaching.

But “most of the letters I received from teachers,’' she says with surprise, “encouraged me not to stay in the classroom.’'

She says she believes the teachers, in a nod to the power of celebrity, thought Ms. McKee could “use her influence to make changes.’'

And a few acknowledged that the six-digit salaries she had been offered would be a welcome fringe benefit.

So despite Mr. McCarthy’s pleas, Ms. McKee took the teachers’ advice and accepted offers to speak on behalf of teachers and teaching.

She is not alone. Although most Teachers of the Year remain in the classroom, many decide to pursue other activities in administration, in higher education, and--like Ms. McKee--on the lecture circuit.

“They go to other areas, perhaps, but they never leave education,’' says John Quam, the director of the Teacher of the Year Program for the Council of Chief State School Officers. “They just broaden their activities.’'

Ms. McKee says that her new career has enabled her to make more of a difference in education by spreading her message beyond her students.

But she acknowledges that the added income--a considerable boost over her $20,000 salary as a remedial-reading teacher in a rural school--has helped ease the pain of the transition.

“At the heart, I think [Mr. McCarthy] very much understood how I felt’’ about teaching, she says now. “But I don’t think he realized how little money I’ve made.’'

“I’ve been the first one not afraid to admit that,’' Ms. McKee says with a laugh.

Sending a Message

Like many Teachers of the Year, Ms. McKee says that her life began to change when she won her award in April 1991.

The offers from educational associations, universities, state governments, and corporations were overwhelming.

But it was not the money or the fame that lured her away from Slanesville Elementary School, in the northwestern corner of West Virginia, she contends.

“I wanted to be involved in changing instructional tactics,’' she says.

To that end, Ms. McKee has been travelling around the country speaking to groups about what she knows best: teaching.

“I had always been kind of worldly, trying to bring ideas back into my school,’' she says. But now she is exporting her knowledge to the outside world.

Ms. McKee hopes to bring to teachers the message that their work is significant. And she says she aims to shatter stereotypes about the profession.

“I think it’s important for society to see me as articulate and professional ... not as a schoolmarm,’' she adds.

On leave from her teaching job since she won her award, Ms. McKee commands $2,000 an appearance for her speaking engagements. While she is still based in West Virginia, by all accounts the former teacher is leading a corporate life.

Her community, in the heart of Appalachia and just 10 miles from where she was raised, is amazed that “I’m riding on airplanes and I have a fax machine,’' she remarks.

Now, she has two publishing contracts to develop stories she used as teaching tools. And a national book tour could be imminent.

Despite all the excitement, she says she has not considered leaving Slanesville.

“My heart is in West Virginia, so I feel like I want to try to bring about change [here],’' she says. “We need to retrain and reinvigorate our teachers.’'

Ms. McKee says she has considered looking for a county-level position in educational policy.

And she has not ruled out going back to the classroom.

“It’s a shame I can’t be paid more for what I like to do and what I do well,’' she observes. “But I think I will eventually go back to the classroom or I’ll run out of things to talk about.’'

‘Ripple Effect’

Terry Weeks taught social studies at Central Middle School in Murfreesboro, Tenn., just south of Nashville, when he was named the 1988 Teacher of the Year. But he has since moved on to other pursuits.

Now, Mr. Weeks is “four or five blocks away’’ from the middle school, at the department of educational leadership at Middle Tennessee State University.

He teaches a course in social-studies methods there and is working toward a doctorate in curriculum and supervision.

“During my travels [as Teacher of the Year], I had the opportunity to speak to several college classes,’' Mr. Weeks says. “In my interaction with them, I saw their readiness to learn, and I came to the realization that maybe I had something to give’’ them.

“Now the spark inside me burns a little brighter because of the freshness’’ of a new career, he adds.

Though Mr. Weeks says he was “desiring a challenge’’ even before he won the award, he says being Teacher of the Year “cast a light’’ on some hidden strengths.

And “if you have talents that extend beyond the four walls of the classroom,’' Mr. Weeks says, “you might want more.’'

As a teacher, “you tend to think you have very little to offer ... but the desire to reach for the stars and advance is always there,’' he adds.

In teacher education, there is the opportunity to create a “ripple effect,’' Mr. Weeks explains. “My influence extends out further than it did before.’'

“And if I have an impact on these teachers-in-training, then they will go out and make a difference with even more people,’' he reasons.

‘A Unique Opportunity’

Donna Oliver has a similar philosophy toward education.

She got involved in teacher training at a local college in 1988, the year after she was recognized as Teacher of the Year.

“I was convinced that I had a greater effect there,’' says Ms. Oliver, who was a biology teacher at Hugh M. Cummings High School in Burlington, N.C., when she was tapped for the national award.

Now she is working on her doctorate in curriculum and teaching at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and is directing the teacher education program at nearby Bennett College.

She says she was reluctant to leave her classroom to accept a short-term post in higher education. But once the switch was complete, “I knew immediately this was the area I needed to be in,’' she says.

Bennett is “historically African-American and all female,’' adds Ms. Oliver, “so I had a unique opportunity to train this group as teachers.’'

And “every time I touch one life there, I can multiply that by 20,’' she remarks.

Ms. Oliver, like her successors, says she did not look at the teaching honor as “a way out,’' but rather an “invigorating experience.’'

“I’d say 99 percent of those [honored by the state chiefs’ council] would stay in the classroom,’' she adds. “I think they just get into other areas of the field.’'

‘Moving in Many Worlds’

A handful of former Teachers of the Year have tackled careers as college instructors, educational consultants, or administrators, according to the Council of Chief State School Officers.

And some choose to continue on a speaking circuit while they are teaching part time.

“I encourage the teachers the year after [the award] not to do anything drastic,’' says Mr. Quam, the program’s director. But “what makes many of them so special is they can move among so many worlds.’'

And, says Mr. Quam, there is no reason for the teachers to feel divided by that freedom.

“They are not just teachers or administrators or trainers of teachers,’' he remarks. “They’re educators.’'

A version of this article appeared in the December 02, 1992 edition of Education Week as A Wider Audience, More Money Draws Teachers of the Year From Classrooms