Last Thursday I passed my metaphorical crown to the new Teacher of the Year for Tulsa Public Schools, Shaniqua Ray. Ms. Ray will no doubt serve as an ambassador for Tulsa Public Schools with passion, poise, and humility.
As I sat in the crowd while the five incredible finalist took the stage, I could not help but flashback through my own year as Teacher of the Year. As teachers we track our lives not by calendar years, but by school years so this time of year this sort of memory movie happens a lot.
I will never forget standing on the tennis court of the Tulsa Designer Showcase Home on May 2, 2017 as our superintendent Dr. Gist read through a brief description of each of the five of the finalists. I observed earlier in the night that her phone had died and knew at this point she was reading off of someone else’s phone. She read my introduction last.
I could see my beaming parents standing off to the side behind Dr. Gist. It looked to me that she forgot to scroll up before announcing the winner. She started to utter the winner’s name. I heard a “M” sound and thought, “Alright, winning this was not for me and that is okay.” Then, I realized the “M” was for “Miss” and what followed was my name. I truly thought it was a mistake.
I thought she made a mistake because last year was one of the hardest years of my teaching career. Every day felt like a battle I lost. A battle that I felt like I lost at the cost of the little lives sitting in my classroom. I was worn down and burning out. Throughout the Teacher of the Year interview process every time I was asked a question about why I thought I belonged there, I had to remind myself I did belong there before attempting to answer. But every time I was asked about why I did what I did, I felt my heart grow back a little bit like the Grinch’s as I got to tell others about the amazing children and people I get to work with.
The entire interview process, it felt like everything that could go wrong went wrong. I had just recovered from the flu before my first interview where I felt like I spent the whole time coughing.
A miscommunication about scheduling sent a camera crew to my class a day earlier than I thought, which meant I had on no makeup and I was not doing the amazing lesson I planned to do. Instead, they watched our normal day while I internally freaked out and starting sweating through my t-shirt.
In the final interview, I went to the wrong location which made me late. I forgot my water and spent the entirety of the interview with cottonmouth. I will never forget getting back into my car to drive back to school and praying, “God, if for some reason I win this honor it will not be anything I did. It will only be because of You because I can’t seem to execute anything at this point. I pray that through this they only see You in me.”
In my wildest dreams, I never thought I would serve as Teacher of the Year. It never even popped up on my radar. I know that I am good at what I do, most days. I know I am doing exactly what God created me to do in this season, most days. But I never thought I would have a platform or a voice in conversations with city councils, legislators, business developers and more.
But, I did win. My goal through this process was to take the spotlight given to me and shine it onto others. I wanted to showcase teachers I work with and know around our district. I desired to promote the work and passion of others and Tulsa Public Schools above simply myself. I pray that those I interacted with in this process saw the love of Christ through me. I hope I served the role with honor and humility while staying true to who I am.
I honestly did not know how I would feel at the end of this experience. But I can say with confidence that this year challenged and pushed me in ways I do not think anything else would have pushed me to grow. Teacher of the Year put me in rooms most second grade teachers do not regularly find themselves. I saw my face in the newspaper and on television screens, which I still find somewhat jarring. All of the accolades aside, this year taught me invaluable lessons about empowerment and confidently owning myself.
What did I learn this year as Teacher of the Year? I learned that others see things in me I am not sure I will ever entirely see, and we all need people who see what we don’t see. Each day I put my head down and do what I do, which is not extraordinary. In education being extraordinary is more ordinary than others realize. But the extraordinary gift I have to teach is worth honing, sharpening, and sharing with others.
But, this was never about me. This title showed me the importance and power of empowerment. I felt empowered to share my stories and the stories of those I know and love. I saw how tall my students walked through the halls after winning because I had not won. We won. They owned that with so much pride.
I see how my school was recognized and others felt empowered and energized. I see how my current class, who had nothing to do with the process last year, embraced themselves as “Teacher of the Year”. From day one they believed they were the best. All children should feel that on the first day of school and beyond.
I have seen how others celebrate and embrace me. My classroom door has always been open, but this year people started coming inside it. And they got to see a glimpse of what I get to see every day. They got to see how amazing the future will look and sound.
Looking forward I know I will carry these memories and lessons with me. Thank you to all of those who believed in me, talked me down when I was freaking out about things like speaking publicly, or talked me up when I wondered why on earth I won. Thank you to those who helped me choose outfits via pictures from dressing rooms, Anna and Aubrey I am looking at you. Thank you to those who took the time to listen and hear the stories from my class and school.
And thank you to my school and students. Each and every child who walks through our halls, through any school hallway, you are the reason we show up each day. You are the reason I get up ridiculously early. You are the reason I buy the ingredients for almond milk because you’re really curious how to make it. You are the reason I learn about Fortnite and Shopkins. You bring us joy, hope, laughter and faith the future looks better.