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Great Teachers Have Great Colleagues

October 30, 2012 By Mary Cathryn Ricker, Guest Commentary

Does Minnesota still need a Teacher of the Year? At a time when we are more cognizant than ever of the work teachers need to do together, of our interdependence on each other in order to best meet the needs of our students, do we need a program that singles one of us out?

One of the biggest misnomers in education debates is the illusion that some group (usually mine) is protecting "the status quo." Leveling this charge is supposed to flatten ones opponent, shame them into silence, be the final, triumphant knock-out punch in a series of innovative, watch-it-now combinations delivered to win the hearts and minds of parents, students, policy-makers, teachers and community. Is the Teacher of the Year program just one more "status-quo" program destined to be put out to pasture?

Studying the inspiring examples of recent Teachers of the Year coupled with record low moral identified among teachers, I would argue that, if anything, the program deserves all of us fueling a renaissance.

Normally those of us with children have the chance to get to know our own children's teachers well. While this is important to our children's success in school, it rarely translates into our understanding or appreciation of teachers in general. In fact, 30+ years of Phi Delta Kappa polling proves as much, that while we grade our own children's schools with As and Bs we grade those nameless & faceless other schools generally far less generously.

Our state's Teacher of the Year program gives us a perennial opportunity to capture a glimpse of one of the leaders in one of those other schools. Through a selection process that eventually identifies one teacher to represent us all, Minnesotans are given a fresh opportunity each year to get to know all of our teachers a little better through one representative.

While the individuals selected are always extraordinary, often inventors of innovative programming, sincerely dedicated professionals whose passion you are compelled to recognize, or all of the above--when you listen to them speak they never pretend to be the exception. They have represented us as the rule to our profession: dedication, determination, and ingenuity.

Which is why, despite the singular nature of naming just one Teacher of the Year, this program can do more for our collective morale than any (still gratefully-accepted) 25% off coupon. Hearing a strong teacher talk about the importance of her or his colleagues and how working as a team with parents and staff makes teaching and learning stronger is exactly the inspiration we all need as we are bombarded with education messages about public rankings, winner-take-all competitions, or super-teacher mythology.

From this year's Teacher of the Year Jackie Roehl, or past awardees like Katy Smith, Ryan Vernosh and Amber Damm, it is not remarkable to me that many of their favorite stories they shared when speaking as Teacher of the Year highlighted the dedication or talent of their colleagues rather than themselves. More than likely, one of the things that brought them to the attention of the Teacher of the Year program was the value they put in working with their colleagues and parents and the deep understanding of teaching as anything but a solo endeavor. Meeting the needs of our students is complex work. Our past Teachers of the Year have beautifully illustrated in their careers how we do that work best in community with one another.

The deadline for nominating someone to be our next Teacher of the Year is November 15th. Perhaps this is the perfect year for a record number of nominees to demonstrate the wealth of strong, dedicated teachers Minnesota has in every community. Who do you suggest?

Mary Cathryn Ricker is president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers and Minnesota 2020 contributor; follow her blog.

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  • Bill Graham says:

    November 7, 2012 at 11:22 am

    Collegiality and cooperation among teachers makes all of them successful.  The top-down model of school management discourages teachers from feeling like team members and detracts from school performance.  No one understands better than teachers what works and what doesn’t work in the schools, and yet too often they hunker down and let counter-productive, short-sighted management decisions rain down on their heads.  It’s time teachers insisted on having a say in how their schools are managed.  It’s time school administrators stopped acting as if they have all the answers.

    Bill Graham