Thursday, December 19, 2013

Teacher of the Year Acceptance Speech

Thank you all so much!  I’d like to extend my gratitude to Mr. Vilaseca and the State Board of Education for being here today and for your commitment to ensuring the finest possible education for all Vermont youth.  I am also so appreciative of the support and welcoming that I have felt from all of the previous Teachers and Principals of the Year, who have made this entire process slightly less anxiety provoking than it could have been, but also a very enjoyable and educational experience.  Thank you also to Ms. Angela Ross, who coordinates the State Teacher of the Year program and who has provided so much guidance and support throughout this process.

I feel honored and humbled to be accepting this honor here today.  I’m honored to join such a remarkable and distinguished group of educators who represent the best that the State of Vermont has to offer.  I’m humbled because there are simply so many outstanding, passionate, creative educators out there who challenge, inspire, and support their students every day.  Both Ms. Farber and Ms. Gasco are fine examples of incredible educators who have made a world of difference within their communities, and who continue to inspire, not only their students, but also other educators (like me). 

And while I am the one who is up here receiving this honor, there are so many dedicated faculty, staff, and administrators who deserve our recognition and acknowledgement for the countless hours and boundless energy they invest in you, their students.  Take a look around at your teachers, at your principal and assistant principal, at your superintendent, at the members of our school board, at all of the staff of this school…I know that I couldn’t do what I do without their support.  And neither could you.  They deserve a hand.

Thank you also to all of our community partners who are willing to take a leap of faith in partnering their programs, departments, farms, equipment, and selves with our students.  Without you, many of the dynamic and engaging learning opportunities that our students experience would not be possible.

I also want to take the time to thank all of you, the students.  For without your openness, your enthusiasm, and your desire, all of these ideas and dreams would be for naught.  You make this happen.  You are willing to try something new, something different, and you make it work.  Whether it be hiking into remote huts in the White Mountains; lifting, carrying, and flipping huge logs until you can’t lift your arms; or running quarter-mile repeats until you want to collapse, your willingness to test your limits and to trust me… I can’t tell you how much it means to me.  You all are the driving force behind our work.  You are the reason we show up each day; excited to help you realize your dreams.  I appreciate that you are willing to let me be a part of your journey!

I’m especially excited to celebrate this honor with the students from the STAR Program and my colleague and friend, Judy Knapp. On a day to day basis, you challenge, inspire, provoke, and motivate me.   I probably learn far more from you than you could ever imagine.  And that is powerful, when we realize that education is a two-way street; that we are all learning and growing together. We have a strong community; one that pushes and pulls and supports every member regardless of what their challenges might be.  I hope you know how proud I am of you, and how much it means to me that you’ve been willing to give this “alternative thing” a shot.  A few years ago, when I joined the STAR Program, I had a goal of proving that there was a better way to educate, but it would take some outside-of-the-box thinking and a commitment to challenging the student in ways that went beyond academics. I also wanted to prove that this style of education doesn’t just work for some students, it works for all students.  I think that today is a testament to that belief of mine.  Furthermore, I can see, in each of you, that you believe it also.  Thank you for allowing me to be your teacher.

In thinking back and reflecting upon how I have come to find myself on this stage today, it is impossible for me to fully acknowledge all of those who have influenced, inspired, prepared, and supported me along the way.  I’d like to thank my parents, who happen to be in the crowd today, and who both were educators for 30 years in Colorado, where I grew up.  From my father, I learned a strong work ethic and the definition of integrity, not because he flouted his, but because I’ve never met anyone who so consistently does the “right thing”.  From my mother, I’ve taken the concepts of unconditional support for my students and a steadfast commitment to making my community a better place, one home-cooked meal at a time, (though you might want to think twice about tasting anything I whip up). 

I also want to thank my wife, Rachel, for putting up with me and for being so supportive of my every endeavor… even when it means storing tractor tires in our yard under the pretense that someday I might finally be able to convince some of my students to flip them over again and again for fun.  Thanks to the boys’ soccer team for proving me right.  Rach, you believe in me and my outlandish ideas; choosing to see my dreams and my potential, when you could just as easily focus on the early mornings, late nights, or the fact that I sometimes come home smelling like campfire, cow manure, sweat, or some terrible combination of all of those things.

Beyond my family, there are countless mentors, teachers, coaches, and guides who helped me to get here today.  If you could all take a moment to think… If you are an adult, who was it that inspired you to do what you do today?  And if you are a student, what person is helping you to see potential in yourself that maybe you didn’t recognize before?  You see, that is the power of a teacher.  We inspire.  We provoke.  We are the eternal optimists (except for Friday afternoon sometimes, but by Monday morning, we’re ready to save the world again). 

And frankly, we love our jobs.  Why else would anyone electively spend most of their best years with teenagers?  If you read the news, you would know that you are all self-absorbed, video game addicts, who would rather read Snooki’s tweets than engage your parents in a conversation around the dining room table.  And while some of this is likely true, there is a good reason for it… there are a lot of powerful people and messages telling you that this is what you are supposed to be like.

As a culture, we don’t do much to really prepare you for the next step in your life.  Yes, we want you to be successful, but we never give you an opportunity to think about what success really means to you.  And since you are young and you still care about what we – your parents, teachers, mentors – think, (don’t worry, your secret is safe with me) you go forth into the world and you try to make us all proud.  You’re left with the idea that the best that we all could expect from you all would be a Cribs-worthy mansion, nice cars, and a high-powered job.  

You deserve more!  You deserve to have the opportunity to set your own course, to fall, dust yourself off, and get moving again towards your whatever it is that you are passionate about.  As a culture, not only do we not give you chances to get to know yourself, we also don’t let you fail.  You deserve to fall down!  I promise you that you will learn more about yourself in those moments when the cards are stacked against you than when everything seems to be going right.  I want you to have the chance to struggle, to flounder, and then to overcome.  Because life isn’t easy, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to be getting any easier in your lifetime.  But we don’t have to be victims to all of the bad news out there.  We can do something about it.

And I want you to have an opportunity to create your own definition of success.  Now, I don’t believe in giving out the answers.  Typically, you’ve got to find those for yourself.  But here is a little gem for you to start with; something of a seed that might eventually grow into some self-awareness in each of you.  “Success is waking up in the morning feeling excited and going to bed at night feeling fulfilled.”  I had to wait until I was 24 to hear those words, and by then, I had been struggling for years to find my purpose in life.  I remember hearing that quote and it gave me a chance to re-evaluate; to hit the pause button and think about what goals I was really working towards; about who and what I wanted to be…

Then I lost a bet, and now I’m here with you all today.  Just kidding, I made the choice to be an educator… In fact, I might even go so far as to say that I always knew that I would become an educator; that all of those others hopes and dreams were really delaying the inevitable.  So do me a favor, think about that one line for a while.  Think about what you love doing.  Think about what you are good at.  Think about where your great passion meets the world’s great need.  And then go do that, with all of your might.  I’ll be with you, every step of the way.

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