Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Building Teacher Heroes

April 22, 2014

What happens when teachers are recognized for their achievements and strengths? 

I speak from experience as a second grade teacher. In my fifth year in the classroom, I was recognized as Teacher of the Year for my school, the following year as County Teacher of the Year and finalist for State Teacher of the Year, and then selected as an America Achieves Teacher Fellow the subsequent year.

With each award and honor, I became more confident in my classroom practice. I began to act as a catalyst for change in my classroom, school, district and state, and even nationally, by working on the Federal Department of Education’s RESPECT Project.  These opportunities brought my voice and experiences with students to inform state and national conversations on education.

These honors profoundly affected my teaching, and importantly prepared me for an event I never could have foreseen. On October 29th, 2012 Super Storm Sandy came ashore in my Jersey Shore community.  The damage was well documented; images of the Jet Star Roller Coaster from Seaside Heights in the Atlantic Ocean, flooded neighborhoods, and fires. My town suffered enormous devastation; in one area, Beach Haven West, 3,600 of the 4,000 homes were flooded; homeowners lost everything. In our Pre-K to 6th grade district of 2,400 students, nearly 10 percent were displaced by the storm or rendered homeless.

The day after the storm, myself and a colleague started organizing volunteers. With school closed for 2 weeks, we created Stafford Teachers and Residents Together (START) to organize volunteers.  With an eventual workforce of nearly 2,250 volunteers, we worked over 11,000 hours cleaning, gutting and rebuilding over 800 homes. This translated into a conservative estimated savings of over $3 million dollars of costs saved by homeowners and businesses.  

While I saw myself as a leader in my classroom, there is no way I would have stood before my town spearheading such a huge undertaking if I hadn’t been primed by the previous honors and attention I received as a result of my teaching.  My teacher leadership was born out of these accolades and honors; and it translated into community leadership following the storm. 

We cannot underestimate the importance of shining a light on educators for all that they are doing well in their classrooms.  With recognition comes personal growth and professional engagement, which positively affects student achievement and the cultural climate of the classroom.  There are over 800 homeowners in my town that benefitted from my teacher recognitions, awards and honors, even if they don’t realize it. With each award I gained courage and conviction, leading to my personal evolution into a leader.

While we must work to drastically increase the amount of leadership opportunities available to teachers, we can start by turning around the narrative about this profession. Language and policies that shine a positive light on the profession serve to increase achievement by empowering teachers; whole communities can benefit from these opportunities.  

Sure, there is room for growth, but I dare say the majority of us are trying hard and want to be better each day for the students we serve.  Building the profession by treating educators with pride and dignity will improve student achievement. In the top performing countries, teachers are revered and supported; we need to do the same.

We don’t know when the next time teachers will be tested by events outside their daily responsibilities. We have witnessed heroic acts at Sandy Hook Elementary and Moore, Oklahoma where teachers put their lives on the line for their students.  We must begin by opening more opportunities for educators to be recognized and rewarded for their leadership. After all, the people who teach our children might just be the heroes our communities need.

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