Most teachers can recall specific moments in the classroom that stand out—ones that provoke reflection or teach lessons or are a prominent reminder of their work’s importance.
In a new podcast series released last week, the 2017 State Teachers of the Year share their education epiphanies. “Leading from the Classroom” is a storytelling effort coordinated by the nonprofit organization NWEA in collaboration with the Council of Chief State School Officers, which runs the National Teacher of the Year program.
The teachers hail from states across the country, including the District of Columbia, or work for the Department of Defense schools overseas. Each state has its own annual selection process for choosing a teacher to receive recognition for excellence in teaching. The program then brings the teachers together for a year of professional-learning opportunities. From that group, a committee also chooses a National Teacher of the Year.
Now, 45 episodes will broadcast these teachers’ insights and stories with the aim to inspire other educators. The series is rolling out new episodes on a weekly basis through the end of January. Each story captures one teacher sharing his or her challenges, joys, and the moments that have crystallized the importance of teaching for him or her. Some focus on the larger policy implications of their work; others discuss more personal moments with students or share childhood stories.
For the podcasting process, many of the teachers drafted their stories together and got feedback from one another before recording. In one episode, Derek Voiles, Tennessee’s Teacher of the Year, discusses how the student-teacher relationship is at the core of a successful classroom—especially for students who experience difficulties outside of school. His experience mentoring one student in particular, he says, highlights the need to “do the extra thing that goes beyond work in the classroom.”
By choosing to mentor a student through lunches and check-ins, he was able to guide him “to a place where school wasn’t just one more thing he had to do on the checklist,” says Voiles, who is a language arts teacher at Lincoln Heights Middle School in Morristown, Tenn. “Now I’m getting to see classrooms from east Tennessee to west Tennessee. That perspective of how big and vast our education system is and how diverse it looks from school to school really is something that continues to grow your mindset and spark your curiosity.”
In another segment, Indiana Teacher of the Year Jitka Nelson draws on her personal background to explain why she decided to go into teaching. Nelson was a former English-language learner herself before becoming an EL/ELA teacher and developmental reading instructor at Logansport High School in Logansport, Ind. In her year of service for the state, she is taking a sabbatical from the classroom to share expertise on teaching English-language learners with colleges of education and preparing a leadership summit, among other responsibilities. Her podcast explains how teachers can better teach their own ELL students.
“I experienced firsthand the journey one travels when taking the first baby steps in an unknown environment, trying to fit in, not knowing how, and speaking without being heard,” Nelson wrote in an email to Education Week Teacher. “There is an unlimited potential and talent these students bring to our classrooms, but they need guidance until they develop their own voice.”
Sydney Chaffee, a Boston public charter school educator who is the 2017 National Teacher of the Year, is visiting classrooms around the country and abroad as part of her role. She chose to share about her work with schools in Ethiopia and hopes the stories will remind teachers that they have support and connection in the broader education community.
“There’s such value in sharing our stories as teachers,” said Chaffee. “There’s this way in which teaching can feel isolating and lonely because it’s just us in that classroom. We can forget that we’re part of this incredible community of people from all over the country. To be reminded of all the challenging and beautiful moments we have in common keeps us going when the work gets hard.”
Image: Toni Poling, West Virginia’s 2017 Teacher of the Year, records her story. Courtesy of NWEA.
(Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified the teacher and her home state in the photo.)
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.