Speak Up or Be Spoken For

On the last day of school during my first year of teaching, I plopped down in my desk chair—dog-tired, heart-weary, and exhilarated—and turned on some music my students had downloaded at some point or another. The Ying Yang Twins’, “Dangerous” hummed from my speakers, and I started to nod my head and pop my shoulders like my students had so desperately tried to teach me to do (I never did get it right). And then I it turned up, blasting the beat as loud as I could. It just felt right.

It took a couple of minutes, but before I knew it, my posse of fellow new teachers—the people who had sustained me over many happy hours that year—came into my room one by one and joined me. It didn’t take long before the few lingering kids left in the building walked by with wide eyes wondering what had gotten into their teachers who were now engrossed in a full on dance party in my classroom. Song after song played, and I would like to think that I did some adequate shoulder popping that day.

That tired moment by myself spontaneously erupted into a dance party with my colleagues and illuminated for me a natural instinct teachers have always had—to work in packs, not alone.

Flash forward to the end of a recent trip to San Antonio for the Council of Chief State Schools State Teacher of the Year conference. A local high school steel drum band played “Smells like Teen Spirit” while 56 State Teachers of the Year jumped up and down in a massive mosh pit. When the song ended, we chanted Encore! Encore! until the teenage band soothed us with their rendition of “Uptown Funk”. I was taken back in time to that first last day of school all over again. Ten years later, titles and honors in tow, the need to dance through our work with my friends is stronger than ever.

What else is there to conclude other than that we need each other to thrive? We need our posse, our kindred spirits, to dance with us; otherwise, we’re just shoulder popping all alone.

Here’s the deal: there can no more be a teacher of the year than there can be a favorite breath of air. Each one is as joyful and necessary as the last. There is absolutely no difference between the teachers dancing at the conference than the teachers dancing ten years ago in my classroom and the other teachers who gather and dance in classrooms all over the country. We’ve all got work to do, and we all need to work together to do it. It should not be just one teacher who gets the mic; every single educator’s voice should be amplified.

Several times during the conference former Teachers of the Year asked us, “What changed for you when you were named a Teacher of the Year?” And many of us kept answering, Absolutely nothing. The only difference now is that suddenly people care what we say. Just like that wide eyed student who walked past my classroom ten years ago, people suddenly see us and think, “Oh, that’s what goes on in there.”

I’m no different now than I was seconds before the moment I was named Kentucky Teacher of the Year. I still stay up late at night thinking about plans and projects and what else I can cross of my never-ending list. I still fall frustratingly short, and I still feel many incredible highs. It’s still just me. The same me I was that first year and every year since. And I just wonder how many other teachers out there are dancing away and no one bothers to look? How much unharnessed talent is ignored because they don’t have a title to match the sweat on their brow?

I recently wrote about honoring other teachers, but I realize now that it’s not just about saying thanks, it’s about losing out. Until we tap into the talent of our educators, our education system will never reach its full potential.

Change in education is a definite, and currently, with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act and many states creating new education initiatives, major change is imminent. If we don’t hand a microphone to those talented educators, we could be faced with decisions made by the wrong voices.

Teachers have an instinct to dance—and work—side by side. It’s time that, title or not, every teacher finds a place to huddle—a classroom, a dance floor, a public forum, or on a clean white page—and work together to speak as one voice.

Because if we don’t speak for ourselves, someone else will surely do it for us.

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