Teaching Profession Opinion

Making a Teacher of the Year

By David B. Cohen — February 20, 2015 3 min read
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What does it mean to be Teacher of the Year? Is it a mark of great professional distinction, or of personal ambition? Is it evidence of outstanding accomplishment, or popularity and political connections? I’ve had the pleasure of knowing and working with some Teachers of the Year, and in my travels around California this year, I’ve spent full days observing and talking to many district, county, and state Teachers of the Year. Their classroom practices have all been impressive, but what makes them stand out compared to other teachers is not pedagogy. There are plenty of excellent practitioners, but these individuals share something else in common that’s important to recognize and cultivate.

The key difference is the shared drive to engage beyond the classroom. For some, that drive leads them writing, publishing, speaking, and training opportunities - a set of activities that appears to be about broadcasting one’s own work and ideas, but also entails hearing from others regularly. Putting yourself and your practice out into the public sphere generates a healthy pressure towards self-analysis, reflective practice, and continual learning.

For other Teachers of the Year, extending their professional life beyond the classroom means taking on leadership and advocacy roles. The National Network of State Teachers of the Year has gained traction on many fronts in the past few years. Several of these individuals have participated in Teach to Lead, a national program advocating expanded teacher leadership. It’s hardly a new concept, but the effort to grow and sustain leadership roles may be gaining momentum not only in national conversations, but also in the form of more opportunities being created in districts, counties, states (New Mexico, Tennessee, Iowa, among others).

On February 16, 2015, I attended the annual gala celebration for California Teachers of the Year, which allowed me to renew some acquaintances and also learn about my state’s five current honorees. The event is always inspiring, highlighting as it does the great work of dedicated and creative teachers. The combination of videography, interviews, and speeches always generates good feelings about the teachers, their students and schools. But I was more interested in the common threads than the particular details - as exemplary as they may be. The stories that emerged demonstrated that great teaching involves not only content area and pedagogical knowledge, but also risks, resources, and relationships. Our newest Teachers of Year talked about lessons that failed, about the activities and materials that require school funding, grants or donations, and about forging partnerships among colleagues, administrators, parents and community members.

In a profession distinguished by egalitarian values and isolated practice, we find some teachers skeptical of individual awards and recognitions. Any program bestowing individual honors is likely to overlook some individuals who deserve recognition, and there may be questions about the criteria and processes that shape the outcome. Instead of worrying about who garners the official honorific Teacher of the Year, I’d encourage everyone in the classroom to be another teacher of the year, even without the title. Be that teacher who takes risks in the pursuit of better learning experiences for students. Of course, taking those risks works out better when you’ve invested in strong relationships with students, parents, colleagues, administrators, and the community. And all of us should commit to advocacy for the resources needed in all the schools and classrooms where our myriad teachers of the year are doing their best for our children.

Photo: Jessica Pack, 2014 CA Teacher of the Year, working with students at James Workman Middle School, by David B. Cohen.
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