The Beginning of My Journey

On Saturday, October 28, 2017, my life was forever changed when the Illinois State Board of Education announced me as the 2018 Illinois Teacher of the Year! Below is a video of the moment that changed my life, as well as my acceptance speech.

I have created this website to document what will undoubtedly be an unforgettable year. I am looking forward to all that 2018 has in store! 

Affluence & Poverty

One of my favorite “perks” about being the Illinois Teacher of the Year is that I get to attend random events where I find myself seated next to incredible educators. We exchange funny anecdotes about education in our respective communities. We compare. We contrast. We laugh. We share our frustrations. Last night was no exception, as I attended a Secondary Literacy event. I was seated next to a veteran elementary teacher from an affluent community, a fact which she made known almost instantly.

Our obligatory conversation began per usual. “Where do you teach?” “What grade?” “How’s the parental support in your district?” “Administrative support?” “Yes, I also enjoy a glass of wine at the end of the day… or two!” (Insert polite laughter here. Teachers are such rebels.)

The conversation was going swimmingly, that is until she said something that elicited the same kind of confused, but polite tilt of my head to my right shoulder which one typically receives when they insist that The Beatles are not the single most influential band in music history. (There is no debate here. The facts indubitably point to The Beatles. This is not negotiable. Sorry Stones fans. And Pink Floyd fans.)

With pride, she quipped, “Well, the taxes in my district are extremely high. So we have incredible schools with incredible kids, and the parents expect us to deliver results. And we do or we’re out. We have very high test scores and our kids do very well.”

She said it with such acceptance of the status quo, and she seemed to insinuate that she had won the educational lottery because she worked in such a well-to-do district. Naturally, I began to dissect her statements. And as I attempted to engage in a weird act of triage to rank the most offensive of her comments to least offensive, I lost track and ordered a second glass of wine. (Did I mention that teachers are rebels?)

My problems with statements such as the aforementioned are many. And to be clear, teachers who teach in affluent districts are not the enemy. I don’t blame her for loving her job. But I find it problematic when teachers who teach in affluent districts nonchalantly propagate the belief that wealthy schools are inherently “better” than impoverished schools.

What I found most perplexing, however, about her description of her Shangri-la school existed in the undercurrent of what she implied: 1. Wealthy parents have earned the privilege to harbor high expectations for their children’s schools. 2. Parents who can’t afford to live in Upper Class, Illinois should inherently expect less from their children’s schools. 3. Children in affluent communities deserve a high quality education that yields measurable progress. 4. Children growing up in impoverished areas are less deserving of high quality education. 5. Teachers should be grateful to work in affluent communities because they have “incredible kids.” 6. Low-income schools are intrinsically predisposed to have kids that are…well, not “incredible.” 7. Don’t get me started on the disparity of test scores between wealthy districts and low income districts. I have no doubt that her test scores are “high” considering the fact that most of her students’ basic needs are being met. 8. Regardless, teacher performance/effectiveness should not be determined by or attributed to test scores.

Forgive my little tangent. But sometimes people say things that require me to bite my tongue, go home, and vent my frustrations to my laptop. And this was one of those occasions. And although it was admittedly just some flippant comment from an exhausted, overworked teacher at the end of a long day, it struck a chord with me…a very flat chord. Because after all, poor kids deserve kick ass schools with kick ass teachers, too. And this little exchange reminded me of what I’m advocating for as capitalize on moments of advocacy that have been afforded to me.

On a related note, I am grateful to work in a less-than-affluent district. We are not destitute, but we have our struggles and so do our students. But together, we cultivate important characteristics required for success, such as resilience. And make no mistake, my kids are “incredible.”

My Trip to D.C.

Though I haven’t fully processed all that has occurred within the last week–and it’s quite possible that I never will–I feel like I am ready to divulge my random takeaways from what was both the most incredible and the most challenging week of my life. And here they are…

The 2018 STOYs are a mighty collective group. We navigated some very complicated situations this week with grace and dignity. And when we fumbled, we learned quickly. Personally, I have learned more in this week than I’ve learned in my entire life. Additionally, the lessons that I’ve learned have fueled me to keep fighting the good fight. I’ll never know what I did to deserve my place in the ranks of the most powerful, passionate educators in the country, but I have left D.C. with a sense of purpose that I’ve never felt before and it’s all because of the Class of 2018. For this, I thank you all. Furthermore, I want to thank CCSSO (Council of Chief State School Officers) for providing me with the opportunities of a lifetime. Few people get to experience all that I did. There is very little left on my bucket list after this week, and it’s all because of CCSSO.

I’ve learned about the power of pressing pause. There are moments when it’s so tempting to be reactionary rather than responsive, and it’s important to know the difference between the two. Reacting to a situation from a place of high emotion isn’t always the best option. Moreover, when we’re responsive we take the time to fully evaluate situations so that we can best respond to challenges. As someone who wears my heart on my sleeve, this is a real challenge for me. When I see injustice, my first reaction is typically one from a place of high emotion. Nonetheless, I’m working to cultivate patience and reflection so that I can become more responsive, and this is a skill that served me well this week.

As a devoted teacher and active member of my community, I thought that I knew what “exhaustion” meant. Turns out, I didn’t until this week. It’s going to take some time to fully recover from the physical and emotional toil last week took on my body and mind. And that’s okay.

Sometimes people surprise us. I went into my visit to the Vice-President’s residence with some discomfort due to my own preconceived notions. And while I still fundamentally disagree with him on a considerable number of issues, I have to admit that he was so gracious with his time–despite the fact that it infuriated the Secret Service, which was so cool to witness–and he was incredibly invested in ensuring that the 2018 STOYs had a memorable experience. Furthermore, Karen Pence was such a gracious host. She was so lovely. She is a former school teacher, and the two of them made such an effort to make us feel welcome. Additionally, I do believe that they value teachers. They expressed such gratitude for the important work that we’re doing, which I appreciated.

Sometimes people don’t surprise us. I think this speaks for itself.

The media perpetuates the narratives that best serve them, AND IT HAPPENS ON BOTH SIDES. I experienced this first-hand, ON BOTH SIDES, this week. The importance of responsiveness served me well, as it allowed me to respond to the narratives that I supported and to recognize when a story that I didn’t necessarily agree with had already been written. I’m very careful about commenting when I can’t control the narrative, and when it’s clear that a journalist has a very specific agenda–but more importantly, one that is entirely false–I tend to pass on the opportunity to speak. And to be clear, it’s not because I’m afraid. But when I reflect on my true objectives in this role, my greater purpose, contributing to the aforementioned narratives does nothing to improve education. It does nothing to improve the lives’ of my students. And I will continue to have a fierce, unapologetic voice when advocating for education. But I refuse to play politics with my students. And we have to stop playing politics with our children. Period.

Having said that, there is an overwhelming amount of hatred and bigotry in our country. It can be fueled by inaccurate headlines, cleverly crafted videos, and even something as innocent as a lapel pin. With this in mind, we have to be diligent in our efforts to combat hatred. We have to work incessantly to combat violence, and to inspire empathy and compassion in the world. While touring the Martin Luther King Jr. Monument yesterday, I had an emotional moment. I was–and still am–exhausted. And I was experiencing a moment of deflation, one where I questioned how I would travel home from D.C. and make the change I want to see in the world. Then, the following words–his words–resonated with me: “Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a greater person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in.” This is now my mission statement.

Mandy Manning is perfection, and she captivates every room she walks into with her message about taking risks and building connections. She is the epitome of grace. She oozes love, acceptance, and respect for others. She is selfless and fearless. And she is the perfect person to represent teachers at this politically and socially divisive moment in our nation’s history. To illustrate, consider the moments that were intended to celebrate her National Teacher of the Year recognition. Rather than talk about herself, she shared the stories of her students. Furthermore, she capitalized on the moment–HER moment–to share the spotlight with her fellow STOYs by illuminating the powerful work we’re doing in our classrooms and communities. Simply put, she is a class act. And any false video or headline that suggests otherwise is laughable and inaccurate. Know that.

Policy work is messy. And did I mention it’s exhausting? Without question, it is uncomfortable to be in a room conversing with people who harbor ideas that are fundamentally and diametrically in contrast with our own. And it requires immense and unimaginable restraint. Nevertheless, I’ve also learned that “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” And in order to have a seat at the table, we have to be willing to play the game. This doesn’t mean we must abandon our beliefs. However, we must be willing to listen. Even when it hurts. Even when we disagree. Compromise requires both sides finding middle ground. I refuse to believe that each and every single issue has to be so polarizing. And if we want our side to be heard, we have to be diligent and know when to make our voices heard. But we also have to know when to listen in order to ensure that we have the opportunity to speak in the future. And our students’ futures depend on our ability to garner a seat at the proverbial table. Burning bridges only robs us of that ability, which could potentially have devastating consequences for our students. It’s a dance that is so complex. But make no mistake, I’m ready to tango.

I miss my students. Like, a lot. In the past week, I missed prom. I missed them finishing up the tail end of two novels. I missed out on AP Test preparation. And it broke my heart. However, they emailed me pictures in their gorgeous gowns and tuxes, which made me feel like I was still experiencing a bit of their memorable evening with all of them. They are why I do what I do. They are why I cannot rest. They are why I get up every morning, and they give my life such purpose. And I will continue to fight for each and every single one of them. Simply put, I cannot wait to see them on Monday.

Finally, I have realized the importance of community. It’s not easy to pick up and leave my Dwight life behind for an entire week to engage in politics. There are an endless list of people who make it possible for me to represent Illinois teachers. While I’ll never be able to fully thank them for all that they do to support me in my endeavors, I will spend the rest of my life trying to make it up to them. This includes people like Debra Howell Karch and Allen Karch, who watch and care for our menagerie of animals for days and weeks on end. It includes Alan Presswood, Amy Pfeifer Jensen, and Monte Jensen who regularly check in with me to see how I’m doing, emotionally. Truly, I cannot thank our parents enough. It includes my inner circle of friends–you know who you are–who text me funny and inappropriate messages that make me smile because they instinctively know that I need them. It includes our neighbors, Michael E. Wolinski and Valerie Smith-Wolinski, as well as Mark Moser and Samantha Moser, who regularly feed our fish and visit our cat. It includes Tim Henson, who vows to keep an eye on our home every single time we travel (Because the Chief of Police doesn’t have other things to worry about, right?). It includes my colleagues who send me words of encouragement because they instinctively know that I’m wrestling with self-doubt and questioning my own capabilities. It includes my administrators who allow me the flexibility to do what I need to do in this role. It includes Stephanie Flott, who single-handedly manages my classroom and my day-to-day schedule by filling in for me every single time I have to travel, and who scolds me for responding to innocuous emails when I’m away doing other important work (I will seriously never be able to thank you enough, but I promise that I’m going to try). It includes my beautiful friend, Sarah Windham, who is fighting cancer and, ironically, checking in with me daily to see how I am doing. And to Ashli Banks, our short Facetime chats keep me sane. I can’t do life without you, but you already know this. To my husband, I have no words. As someone who didn’t sign up for this crazy life, you help me to navigate it and you remind me daily of what truly matters. I could NEVER do this work without all of you. And as I sit in my kitchen this morning drinking coffee and reflecting on the week, I am reminded of the following: There is no place like home.