Education Opinion

Teachers of the Year in the Spotlight

By David B. Cohen — February 17, 2017 5 min read
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The California Teachers of the Year Foundation recently put on a small conference on the morning of the larger gala celebrating this year’s honorees. I was invited to offer some brief opening remarks as a friend of the organization, having collaborated in various ways with some of our past state teachers of the year, and having profiled six of them in my book, Capturing the Spark. What follows in the next section of this post is a more polished version of what I said on that occasion, the prepared remarks (minus opening pleasantries) from which I drew, improvising some cuts and ad libs along the way. And then, in the concluding section of this blog post, I have some thoughts about what it means to represent students and teachers at the national level during the current presidency and administration.

As I was visiting classrooms around the state to write my book, what I noticed about teachers of the year is not only their skill in the classroom, but also that they see themselves and their work as part of a broader picture. They’re not just teaching their students, but they’re advancing a broader agenda of educational improvement. Each of them has a clear sense of how what they want to change and how to make it happen.

I want to highlight a portion of my visit with Tom Collett (CA Teacher of the Year 2012), who teaches science at Newark Junior High School. Now Tom’s an excellent teacher, but what impressed me was how much of an effort he made to introduce me to everyone else. It was clear as soon as I arrived and he wanted me to meet the principal. Then, at lunch, he wanted to me to meet the English teachers, so I’d know about something wonderful they were doing. The English teachers wanted me to know more about the P.E. teachers. Everyone had something positive to say about someone else. And then Tom said that if his own son attended the school, “I’d be comfortable having him in classroom, with any teacher. Roll the dice.”

Now, many of us are familiar with the idea that in a school, they’re all “our kids.” Thriving schools have teachers who care about every student and not just the ones in their own classes. I think Tom and his colleagues extended that idea even further. They’re all our teachers.

And what I want to suggest today, thinking about what it means to be a California Teacher of the Year, is that we need advocates who go out to represent our state with the belief that they’re all “our kids” throughout the state, and they all attend “our schools.” And their teachers are all “our teachers.”

I also want to suggest that while you’re helping us, we can help you. Instead of just five Teachers of the Year, we can have more. When the spotlight hits, you can absorb the light and glow brightly, and enjoy it. Or, you can reflect that light, like a giant disco mirror ball of teacher leadership, and cause the spotlight to shine all around. Cast some light in the places that need it, on the other deserving teachers and other great schools out there. In any given school, in any given grade level or department, we might have Teachers of the Year. Why not a teacher of the year for parent engagement, and another for technology integration, one for new teacher support, and another for union organizing? Teachers of the year everywhere, sharing the work of building up and advocating for our public schools.

So, as my small contribution to help them represent California, the current Teachers of the Year will each receive a copy of Capturing the Spark, and I hope it will serve as a sort of cheat sheet for you regarding some of the great teaching happening around the state. And for anyone else who’d like a copy, I’ll be outside at a table later! I look forward to learning and conversing with you all today, and celebrating tonight as well.

Now, what happens as our state Teachers of the Year operate on the national stage? During and after the election, some TOYs have taken political positions through blogs, videos, and open letters. Others in teacher leadership have suggested more strategic thinking, and caution in political expression that could lead to unintended negative consequences. I was talking about this situation with my friend Marciano Gutierrez, who served as a teaching ambassador fellow in Washington D.C. He spent a year in the Education Department, and has some appreciation for what it takes to be heard and to be effective on policy matters. Marciano said that the long game he’s thinking about right now is how long memories last, memories that he and his students will share, for years, decades perhaps. When you were in a position to speak out, take a stand, to make a statement that would be noticed, what did you do?

For teachers who have the honor and responsibility of representing their states, their colleagues, and their students this year, there may be some complicated decisions this year about what to do when there’s an invitation to the Education Department or the White House. To go or not go? To speak out or not speak out? I don’t see a long-term policy goal worth pursuing that also involves equivocating about the actual risks and real harm experienced by our immigrant students, Dreamers, refugee students, students of color, religious minorities, disabled students, LGBTQ students and family members.

I have the luxury of keeping this hypothetical, but I can say with conviction I would not make an appearance, pose for a photo, or shake a hand in the White House. There will be no act and no optics suggesting that I want or accept any praise from, or offer any endorsement of a Donald Trump administration. I would not smile for a picture and listen to platitudes about education while Stephen Bannon sits a few feet away in his office advancing a hostile agenda that is antithetical to so much that I teach and value.

For teachers who will face this decision, I can respect the possibility that they will reach a different conclusion, citing reasons that it’s better to go than to stay away. I can anticipate the arguments they’d offer, and I see their validity. This one moment and one decision need not divide us, nor define anyone’s character or career. I do hope that in the future any of our Teachers of the Year can look back and recount how they used their time in the spotlight not only to promote education in our country, but also to advance the ideals of liberty and justice for all.

Photo: Tom Collett teaches a class at Newark (CA) Junior High School; by David B. Cohen
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The opinions expressed in Capturing the Spark: Energizing Teaching and Schools are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.